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Saturday, June 19, 1999 Published at 09:47 GMT 10:47 UK

World: Middle East

Clinton postpones Israel embassy move

Jerusalem: A city of religious sensitivities

US President Bill Clinton has ordered that plans to move the American embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem should be delayed by six months.

A statement issued in Cologne, where the president is attending the G8 Summit, said the delay was made "to protect our critical national security interests, most crucially in preserving the prospects for a comprehensive, just and lasting peace [in the Middle East]".

[ image: Mr Clinton says a move from the Tel Aviv site would jeopardise peace]
Mr Clinton says a move from the Tel Aviv site would jeopardise peace
Earlier more than 60 members of Congress signed a letter to the president urging him not to block plans to shift the embassy to Jerusalem - Israel's declared capital - saying the move was "long overdue".

The letter argued that except in Israel - a democratic friend and strategic ally, the United States maintains its embassy in every country's functioning capital.

The Chairman of the House International Relations Committee, Benjamin Gilman, said the US already conducts many official meetings in Jerusalem, in effect recognising the city as Israel's capital.

He has described the president's decision based on national security grounds as "specious".

Presidential waiver

The 1995 Jerusalem Embassy Act decreed that the US embassy should begin moving to Jerusalem by the end of last month. But it contains a waiver giving the president the right to postpone the move if he considers it in the national interest.

[ image: Jerusalem has been the scene of a series of bombings]
Jerusalem has been the scene of a series of bombings
The US act backs the Israeli position that Jerusalem is its undivided capital, but Palestinians reject Israel's claim to Arab East Jerusalem, which they say should become the capital of a future Palestinian state.

The embassy move had also been part of the president's 1992 election campaign.

At present Costa Rica and El Salvador are the only two countries to maintain embassies in Jerusalem.

Moving the US embassy there as well would have angered the Palestinian leadership and other Arabs, and could undermine Washington's future ability to mediate in the peace process.

'Final status' talks

The White House says it expects Israel and the Palestinians to discuss the future of Jerusalem in "final status" talks scheduled to resume once the new Israeli Prime Minister, Ehud Barak, is able to form a coalition government.

"At a time when there is real potential for movement in the peace process ... the United States should not be taking steps of its own that prejudge those negotiations and make them more difficult," a White House statement said.

Asad Abdul-Rahman, a member of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation's executive committee, said the president's decision was "very encouraging".

"It's a good sign that the Americans realise the sensitivities of the Palestinian people," he said.

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