Senator Boxer’s far-fetched defense of the visa waiver exemption for Israel

Israel/PalestineUS Politics
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Sen. Barbara Boxer

Senator Barbara Boxer’s recent letter in the Los Angeles Times defending legislation that would allow Israel in the Visa Waiver Program while giving it a pass on key requirements was a disingenuous and poorly reasoned attempt to mollify critics of the provision. Recent critics of the legislation include George Bisharat, a law professor of Palestinian heritage and a “descendant of William Samuel Johnson, a signer of the U.S. Constitution.” Late last month, the LA Times published an op-ed from Bisharat calling out Senator Boxer for proposing legislation that would sanction ‘Israel’s racially discriminatory treatment of American citizens.’

In her letter, Senator Boxer perplexingly argued that removing standards would allow Congress to hold Israel to the highest possible standard, and provide much needed leverage for Congress to protect U.S. travelers. But supporters of the visa waiver exemption know full well that this exemption would allow Israel to continue its discrimination against U.S. citizens under the rubric of national security.

It simply defies reason to expect that lowering or eliminating the eligibility standards for the Visa Waiver Program, specifically the ones Israel has consistently violated, would somehow give the U.S. more leverage. The obvious result of allowing Israel to couch its systemic discrimination in security terms to circumvent the reciprocity requirement would be diminished U.S. leverage for demanding that all its citizens are treated equally.

In any case, how is it possible that the U.S. needs more leverage to hold Israel accountable? Perhaps the Senator can explain to her constituents how $30 billion in military aid over a decade, unconditional diplomatic support, loan guarantees, and pre-existing treaty obligations are insufficient leverage for Congress to demand better treatment for U.S. travelers.

Although Senator Boxer deliberately obfuscates the implications of this provision, two things are clear. First, the legislation proposes that Israel be held to a different and lower standard than every other nation in the Visa Waiver Program. Second, Israel’s refusal to provide reciprocity to U.S. citizens is reflective of a broader system of apartheid laws that systematically deprive Palestinians of their human and civil rights.

This year’s annual State Department country report again listed Israel’s “institutional and societal discrimination against Arab citizens” as a significant human rights issue. As evidenced by State Department warnings to U.S. travelers, Israel has consistently extended those discriminatory policies to include U.S. citizens of Arab and Muslim heritage, or those critical of its policies. In late April, the Israeli Attorney General reaffirmed the legality of demanding access to travelers email accounts, a practice already used against numerous U.S. citizens who have faced interrogation and were then deported.

In truth, Congress has rarely sought to use the leverage already available to hold Israel accountable for violations of U.S. laws relating to human rights. As James Zogby, the Founder and President of the Arab American Institute recently noted for an article in The Hill, Congress is already failing to hold Israel accountable for “violating its treaty obligations to the U.S.” as part of the ‘1951 U.S.-Israel Treaty of Friendship, Commerce, and Navigation.’ How many U.S. laws does Israel need to be in violation of before its benefactor can exert pressure?

In reality, the Senator has used U.S. leverage and her authority for the opposite purpose, to bestow impunity upon Israel in spite of its human rights violations and mistreatment of U.S. citizens. Senator Boxer neglected to use any such leverage when her own constituent, Tristan Anderson, was shot in the face and critically injured by a U.S.-supplied high velocity tear gas canister fired by the Israeli military.

Considering the Senator’s poor record of holding Israel accountable for its preexisting obligations under other laws and treaties, it is absurd to expect that easing Israel’s compliance requirements will somehow result in better treatment for U.S. citizens. In fact, Senator Boxer’s proposal to lower the standards for Israel would have the opposite effect, bestowing legitimacy on Israel’s routine discrimination against U.S. citizens under the guise of making Israel more secure.

If Senator Boxer really wants leverage to assist U.S. travelers, she should propose an amendment specifying that unless and until Israel ends its practice of systemic discrimination based on race, religion and ethnicity, it will not be granted entry into the visa waiver program. Instead, Senator Boxer’s legislation is meant to deny U.S. travelers protection under the pretext of security, an all-too-familiar refrain used by Israel to justify discrimination, illegal occupation, destruction of Palestinian homes, and the repeated misuse of U.S.-supplied weapons against civilians.

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