As Dan Shapiro took the oath of office as U.S. ambassador to Israel Friday afternoon, some in Congress were working to renew the campaign to move his new office from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. But even if they succeed, the American embassy would remain in Tel Aviv until at least 2014.
Congress ordered the transfer in the 1995 Jerusalem Embassy Act but gave presidents the authority to waive the mandate in the national interest, which is just what Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush (despite his campaign promise to move the embassy on his first day in office) and Barack Obama have done.
Now Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), chair of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, has put a provision in her draft of the 2012 State Department authorization bill to repeal presidential waiver authority as of 2014. Congressional efforts to restrict presidential authority in foreign policy historically have been veto bait, and the embassy location has less to do with Israel than an effort by the legislative branch to encroach on the powers of the executive branch.
Another provision in the bill would require that any official U.S. document that lists countries and their capital cities "shall identify Jerusalem as the capital of Israel."
Amendments like the Embassy mover have more to do with electoral politics than foreign policy. Both parties have been playing this game for nearly the 40 years I’ve been on and around Capitol Hill. The party out of the White House is always looking for ways to embarrass the president of the other party and accuse him of not being sufficiently pro-Israel.
You want some proof? Republicans pushed the Jerusalem Embassy bill in 1995 to embarrass Bill Clinton and try to help Sen. Bob Dole (R-Kansas), the eventual GOP nominee, who had a mediocre record at best on Israel-related issues. Every time Clinton exercised his waiver authority, Republicans vilified him. Then in 2000 along came George W. Bush with a promise to move the embassy on his first day in office. By the time he got to the White House he had changed that to "begin" preparing for the move; he then proceeded to sign 16 consecutive waivers. Republicans, who had a majority in both chambers during much of his tenure, were no longer outraged by this exercise of presidential authority, but instead they "understood" and would not hold their man’s feet to the fire. Conclusion: if Bush’s promise had been sincere and the GOP initiative serious, the U.S. Embassy would be celebrating its 10th anniversary in Jerusalem this year.
Israel is familiar territory for Amb. Shapiro, who first visited at the age of four, was there during the Yom Kippur War and was a student at Hebrew University. More recently, he has been there repeatedly as a Senate foreign policy staffer and over the past two and a half years as President Obama’s senior director for Middle East and North Africa on the National Security Council.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gave Amb. Shapiro a warm send-off Friday at his swearing-in ceremony. She said that by sending one of his closest aides, President Obama is demonstrating his "personal commitment to the strength of this relationship to Israel’s future, its security, and its success."
Shapiro responded that his charge from President Obama is to focus on increasing "the remarkable cooperation and coordination" between American and Israeli military and intelligence establishments "to their highest levels ever."