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Muslim clerics say embassy site theirs


JERUSALEM -- A dispute over whether the U.S. Embassy in Israel should be moved from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem grew more complicated yesterday when Muslim religious leaders said that land set aside for a new embassy building here actually belongs to them.

Legislation to relocate the embassy was introduced Tuesday by Republican leaders in the U.S. Congress, and it immediately became part of the broader struggle between Israelis and Palestinians over Jerusalem, which each side claims as its capital.

The city's future is so volatile that it was supposed to be left for last in Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. Instead, its importance has sent it repeatedly to the top of the agenda, lately with explosive potential because of new Israeli plans to confiscate property in largely Palestinian areas.

In this fragile political landscape, the Republican effort to relocate the U.S. embassy has landed like a bombshell.

It has also ignited a dispute over who has rights to the likely embassy site in Jerusalem, a weedy 10-acre plot in Talpiot, an area that was on the Israeli side of the once-divided city even before the 1967 Middle East war, in which Israel captured the eastern half and then annexed sections that had been in Jordan's hands.

Because of the endless disputes over Jerusalem, the United States, like most other countries, has kept its embassy in Tel Aviv. That building is undergoing a $30 million renovation.

The proposed legislation would spend another $105 million on the Jerusalem site, and cut the State Department's overseas construction budget in half if it balks.

Tuesday, Secretary of State Warren Christopher warned that the bill risked inflicting "very serious damage" on the peace talks.

For similar reasons, the government of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin has been cool to the bill, welcoming it with a conspicuous lack of enthusiasm.

Some commentators here have accused the Republican leadership of dangerous meddling that benefits the rightist Likud bloc and other opponents of the peace talks.

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