The Associated Press
WASHINGTON - President Bush is sticking by his campaign promise to move the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, Secretary of State Colin Powell says, but the time hasn't been right.
The comment drew criticism from Arabs.
"We, as Arab countries, object to Jerusalem being regarded as the capital of Israel as long as the other part of Jerusalem (east Jerusalem) hasn't been acknowledged as the capital of Palestine," Egypt's Foreign Minister Amr Moussa told reporters yesterday.
The Palestinian National Liberation Movement, a faction that split off from Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's Fatah movement in 1982, said in a statement that Powell's comment was "confirmation that American policy is completely biased in favor of the Zionist enemy."
Syrian political analyst George Jabbour - a political scientist at Aleppo University - told The Associated Press that Powell's statement was a "provocation to Arab and Islamic sensibilities" and that such a move of the embassy would be "a violation of international law."
They were responding to comments by Powell Wednesday to the House International Relations Committee.
"President Bush is committed to moving our embassy to Jerusalem," Powell said in answer to a question from a committee member.
"The process is ongoing. We have not started any actions yet," he said, noting the "very difficult situation that exists right now."
"But it does remain his commitment to move the embassy to the capital of Israel, which is Jerusalem," Powell said of Bush.
Other U.S. presidential candidates have talked about moving the embassy to Jerusalem. But in the interest of peace talks, they have backed off the promise after taking office to avoid affecting negotiations between the two sides. Peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians have been shattered by months of violence in the occupied territories.
After Wednesday's hearing, the State Department issued a clarification, insisting Powell was only restating what has been U.S. policy for some time.
"The secretary described the situation on the ground," spokesman Philip Reeker said.
A senior State Department official later said U.S. policy continues to be that the parties have agreed that the status of Jerusalem is a matter to be resolved between the Israelis and the Palestinians, a policy that Powell's predecessor Madeleine Albright restated as late as last summer in an appearance in Atlanta.
When former President Clinton first ran in 1992, he advocated moving the embassy. But he never acted, even though Congress several times tried to force his hands by approving funds for it.
The issue resurfaced last August, when then-Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak told Israel television he understood that Clinton planned to move the embassy on his last day in office. Again, the move never materialized.
In other testimony before the House committee, Powell denied that restructuring sanctions against Iraq represents a retreat by the Bush administration.
Instead, it "gives us a new floor that all can agree to," he said, adding that sanctions as they were have been collapsing.
Although it is still formulating a policy for Iraq, the administration has said it thinks curbs on trade of consumer items should be eased and sanctions should be focused instead on assistance to President Saddam Hussein's weapons program and on the flow of oil.
"What we've been trying to do ... is to see how we could stabilize this collapsing situation," Powell said.
Powell has said he hopes revisions could be completed before Arab leaders hold a summit in Amman, Jordan, in late March.
U.N. sanctions were put in place at the end of the Persian Gulf War in 1991, but support for them among Arab and Western nations that were coalition partners during the war has been fast deteriorating. Many complained that Iraqi civilians, particularly children, were being hurt most, not of Saddam.
Powell also said he released money for an anti-Saddam group, the London-based Iraqi National Congress, so regime opponents could step up their activities. The move, taken by Powell on Monday, allows the organization to draw $4 million from a fund set up by Congress to carry out information-gathering inside Iraq.
On other topics during his two-hour appearance, Powell:
- Said he planned a meeting yesterday at the State Department to talk about options for helping end the almost two-decades-old civil war in Sudan, where 2 million people have died from fighting and starvation.
- Said the State Department can save millions of dollars on embassy construction by relaxing safety requirements without compromising security.