It's autumn, the leaves are falling and up on Capitol Hill politicians are tossing around one of their favorite footballs - Jerusalem.
In the perennial game of "who loves Israel more," it is the Republicans' turn to demand the president move the American embassy to the Israeli capital. Actually, this is one of the few bipartisan traditions left in this deeply divided capital. The party out of the White House tries to embarrass the one inside with legislation to move the embassy, knowing all along that it's not going to be done.
Republicans tried it in 1980 to embarrass president Jimmy Carter, who already was in trouble with Jewish voters that year. Four years later Ronald Reagan was president and Democrats led by Sen. Patrick Moynihan of New York and Rep. Tom Lantos of California raised the Jerusalem flag.
In 1995 it was the Republicans' turn again, led by presidential candidate Sen. Bob Dole, who previously had a dismal record on Israel but suddenly decided to become its champion. He had the enthusiastic backing of AIPAC and some leaders of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, who leaped at the opportunity to undermine and embarrass Bill Clinton and Yitzhak Rabin, whose peace policies they opposed.
That effort led to a law mandating the move, but with a loophole: The president has the authority to waive it in the national interest. Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kansas) last week introduced legislation to eliminate that presidential power. Oddly, he never tried that during eight years of the Bush administration, even though candidate George W. Bush vowed to move the embassy and then issued 16 consecutive waivers, but now that a Democrat is in charge who will likely sign another waiver next month, Brownback has a new sense of urgency.
He announced his plans at a six-hour Jerusalem Conference in a Senate office building last week sponsored by a hard-line group that billed the meeting as "under the sponsorship of members of the House and Senate," although no sponsor names were published on its Web site. The Jewish Telegraphic Agency was too busy to cover the meeting, and its coverage consisted of two paragraphs tacked on top of a press release from the Orthodox Union endorsing Brownback's bill.
It is hard to take Brownback's measure very seriously, with its partisan motives and diplomatic implications.
A LOOK at the legislation's very partisan sponsor list says it is going nowhere: six of the most conservative Republicans - including one enmeshed in a call girl scandal, the party's chief fund-raiser and campaign chairman and two lame ducks - plus Independent Joseph Lieberman, who seems to take delight in giving Barack Obama grief.
I'm sure all share a sincere desire to see the American embassy in Jerusalem, where it belongs and should have been moved during those years when there was no peace process to endanger, but I can't help wondering why none of these sponsors introduced bills to remove the waiver authority when there was a Republican president.
Brownback issued at least two press releases in 1999, the year the embassy law took effect, attacking Clinton for "refusing to acknowledge Jerusalem as Israel's capital," but a search of his Web site reveals no similar statements criticizing Bush by name during his administration.
Their timing is questionable. It came just as Obama was about to meet with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to try to repair frayed relations and try to relaunch the peace process with the Palestinians.
Tensions in Jerusalem are high enough without Brownback & Co. trying to exploit them for partisan gain. The city is on edge since riots last month sparked by radical Palestinians spreading rumors that radical Jews were threatening the Aksa Mosque.
This Jerusalem Embassy Relocation Act of 2009 is little more than the latest round in an old partisan game. Brownback and other sponsors know no president, Republican or Democrat, will move the embassy until there is an Arab-Israeli peace agreement, and that no Israeli government ever pressed seriously for the move. However, opportunistic politicians also know that they can demagogue the issue endlessly, and since it is going nowhere, they can claim credit - and campaign contributions - for their noble intentions and blame Barack Obama for their failure.
Brownback, whose brief run for the 2008 presidential nomination ended in 2007, may be flirting with another try in three years. He is not running for a third term next year (in Bob Dole's old seat) and may instead run for governor of Kansas, which could be a platform for another White House try. Then Brownback, whose view of the two-state solution is "Jordan as the second state in that equation," can tell Jewish voters he is to the right of Netanyahu because of his Jerusalem ploy. And maybe Joe Lieberman will endorse him, and they can toss the Jerusalem football around together.