The State Department appeared stumped by a simple question: In what country is the Israeli capital of Jerusalem located?
The ever-quotable chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee knew the answer and jumped on the State Department for appearing to claim that Jerusalem isn't even inside Israel.
"Where does the [Obama] administration think Jerusalem is? On Mars?" said Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Florida Republican.
Her zinger followed the announcement of travel plans for Kathy Stephens, acting undersecretary for public diplomacy and public affairs.
The State Department in late March said Ms. Stephens would be visiting "Algeria, Qatar, Jordan, Jerusalem and Israel" between March 23 and April 5. That announcement sounded as if the State Department refused even to concede that Jerusalem is within the boundaries of Israel, as Ms. Ros-Lehtinen noted.
On March 26, three days after Ms. Stephens left Washington, the State Department issued another announcement that removed all references to the countries she was visiting. It said she would travel to the cities of "Algiers, Doha, Amman, Jerusalem and Tel Aviv."
An alert reporter, Matt Lee of the Associated Press, noticed the original announcement and challenged State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland to explain whether the United States considers Jerusalem as part of Israel and whether it recognizes the Holy City as the capital of the Jewish state.
Mr. Lee and Ms. Nuland parried through nine questions as he pressed for answers and she stuck to the diplomatic script.
The U.S. Embassy is located in Tel Aviv because Washington considers the status of Jerusalem as an issue to be decided between Israelis and Palestinians, who also claim Jerusalem as the capital of a future Palestinian state.
"Is it the State Department's position that Jerusalem is not part of Israel?" Mr. Lee asked.
Ms. Nuland said the original announcement was a mistake.
"What is the capital of Israel?" Mr. Lee asked twice, and Ms. Nuland repeated U.S. policy.
At one point, she appeared flustered. "I have just spoken to this issue, and I have nothing further to say on it," she said.
The questioning continued until Ms. Nuland finally called on another reporter.
The issue of Jerusalem has dogged U.S. presidents since 1995, when Congress approved the Jerusalem Embassy Act, requiring the United States to relocate the embassy to the Israeli capital.
However, Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama have invoked a waiver that allows a president to postpone moving the embassy for national security reasons.
Ms. Ros-Lehtinen faulted all three presidents for evading the issue.
"The Obama administration has followed in the flawed footsteps of its predecessors by refusing to fully implement U.S. law and move our embassy in Israel to Jerusalem," she said.
The issue reached the Supreme Court last month, when the parents of a 9-year-old boy born in Jerusalem challenged the State Department for refusing to recognize his birthplace as being within Israel.
The court, in an 8-1 decision, ruled that the State Department was ignoring a 2002 law that allows U.S. citizens born in Jerusalem to list Israel as their birthplace on their passports.
The controversy over Jerusalem surfaced in the race for the Republican presidential nomination this week.
As a Republican presidential candidate, former Sen. Rick Santorum criticized front-runner Mitt Romney for sidestepping a question in December about recognizing Jerusalem as the Israeli capital.
"I support recognizing a united Jerusalem as the capital of Israel," he wrote Monday in the New York Daily News, "and I will move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem."
On Tuesday, however, Mr. Santorum suspended his presidential campaign.
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