Congress leaves town without passing lobby priority: visa-waiver bill for Israelis

ActivismIsrael/PalestineUS Politics
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AIPAC
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The American-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) suffered a defeat Friday when Congressional members went on winter recess without passing a bill that would have codified discrimination against Arab- and Muslim-American travelers to Israel/Palestine.

AIPAC had been pushing the United States-Israel Strategic Partnership Act since their last policy conference in March.  The bill, sponsored by Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA) and Representative Brad Sherman (D-CA),  had come under withering attack from a coalition of groups.  Now, the Arab-American Institute and Jewish Voice for Peace are celebrating the defeat of the bill, though it could come back up on the floor next year.

“Your efforts to hold Congress accountable to protect the rights of all U.S. citizens have paid,” the AAI said in an e-mail to supporters.  The bill is “dead in the water.”

The act, backed by dozens of U.S. officials, would waive the need for Israeli travelers to possess a visa to enter the U.S.  The countries that have this arrangement with the U.S. usually extend those same privileges to American travelers to their countries.  But AIPAC had been pushing for language that would exempt Israel from reciprocity.  Under the current version of the legislation, Israel would be allowed to deny American visitors entry if Israel said they posed a “security” risk to the state.  The majority of those denied entry into the territories Israel controls–which includes occupied Palestine–are Arab- and Muslim-American travelers, as well as activists who work on Palestine.

The most prominent case in recent months has been the denial of entry to Nour Joudah, a Palestinian-American teacher barred from entry by Israel on her way to her place of employment, the Friends School in Ramallah.  Israeli officials denied Joudah on the basis of security, though they never specified how Joudah posed a threat.

The defeat of the bill–at least for now–represents the latest setback for the Israel lobby on the Hill.  As LobeLog’s Mitchell Plitnick notes, AIPAC failed to kill the Iran deal; failed to muster support for attacking Syria; and now have failed to ensure the passage of the visa-waiver bill.

“These bills represent strong evidence that AIPAC is becoming a victim of its own hubris, pushing hard on an issue they never had much chance of winning,” Plitnick wrote. 

Still, as Plitnick points out, Congress did manage to include $284 million dollars for Israeli defense systems like Iron Dome in the annual defense bill passed last week.  That amount was triple the request of the Obama administration.

About Alex Kane

Alex Kane is a freelance journalist and graduate student at New York University's Near East Studies and Journalism programs. Follow him on Twitter @alexbkane.

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