WASHINGTON -- It's one of the oldest disputes in American Middle East policy -- where to put the U.S. Embassy in Israel.
The United States was the first country to recognize Israel upon its creation in 1948 and has been its closest -- at times its only -- friend and protector.
But like most other nations, the United States has kept its embassy in Tel Aviv, not Jerusalem: To have the embassy in Tel Aviv served as a silent refusal to recognize Israel's claim to all of Jerusalem as its capital.
And demands by Israel's supporters that the embassy be moved got nowhere -- until now.
Suddenly, the embassy issue has leaped to political center stage, thanks to moves by the Republican congressional leadership to require construction of a U.S. embassy in Jerusalem, beginning next year.
And as so often happens when the subject of Jerusalem comes up, the issue threatens to bring the Arab-Israeli peace process to a halt.
With shrines sacred to Jews, Muslims and Christians, Jerusalem more than any other city symbolizes centuries of religious and political aspirations and hatred.
For Israelis, no issue has greater support than preservation of an undivided Jerusalem as the nation's capital.
For Palestinians, Jerusalem is the longed-for capital of an eventual state that would bring them world recognition as a nation.
These seemingly incompatible desires explain why Mideast negotiators have been unable to come up with a formula for Jerusalem that might satisfy both sides.
The Palestinian leadership and the governments of Israel and the United States agreed in 1993 that the status of Jerusalem should be one of the last issues addressed in Israeli-Palestinian talks, and in any case not until next year.
The hope was that once the two sides became used to living peaceably on the same land, a decision about the future of Jerusalem would be easier to reach.
Now, in a mix of presidential politicking and a GOP bid to break the Democratic Party's traditional hold on Jewish voters and campaign contributions, Congress is threatening to intervene, by insisting on construction of the new embassy.
The chief sponsor of the embassy project is Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, anxious to repair the damage to his relations with the Jewish community caused in 1990, when he suggested cutting aid to Israel to help new democracies in eastern Europe and elsewhere.
Senator Dole, a leading candidate for his party's presidential nomination, chose to announce his support at a convention of a powerful pro-Israel lobbying group, the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee.
With companion legislation in the House of Representatives sponsored by Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia, President Clinton will be forced to sacrifice some of his Jewish support in order to block the bill.
The legislation also unravels Israel's negotiating strategy, which calls for saving the issue of Jerusalem for last. For both Israel and the United States, the problem is one of timing: If the United States builds a new embassy in Jerusalem, the United States in effect accepts Israeli sovereignty over all the city -- and loses any chance of being regarded as even-handed by the Palestinians.
"Efforts to legislate the issue of Jerusalem now," warned Secretary of State Warren Christopher, "risks doing very serious damage to these negotiations at a very delicate time."
Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin has kept as much distance from the Dole bill as possible.
Palestinians say passage of the bill would undermine Israel's chief negotiating partner, Yasser Arafat, leader of the PLO. "Arafat would have to deal with increasing pressure and be forced to suspend negotiations," says Hisham Sharabi, executive director of the Center for Policy Analysis on Palestine, a Washington think tank.
Senator Dole's efforts have also upset parts of the Jewish community in the United States. His legislation for a new embassy in Jerusalem was "exquisitely poorly timed," said Theodore Mann, a former president of the American Jewish Congress and chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.
California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a Democrat who is also Jewish, has criticized the legislation as "provocative" and agreed with the Clinton administration that it could harm the peace process.
But Senator Dole's bill has exposed a deep rift among American Jews themselves over Israel's negotiating strategies. American critics of Prime Minister Rabin insist that an American refusal to recognize all of Jerusalem as Israel's capital only feeds unrealistic Palestinian expectations of sharing the city.
The rhetoric and competing claims over Jerusalem reflect the complexity of the city.