House committee advances bill to make Israel ‘major strategic partner’–and waive visas for Israelis

ActivismIsrael/PalestineUS Politics
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When Congress headed home for the holidays last year, activists celebrated because a bill that effectively gave American blessing to discrimination against travelers to Israel wasn’t voted on. A month later, the bill is back–though the version that passed a House committee does not include much criticized exemptions for Israel’s participation in the visa-waiver program.

Today, the House Foreign Affairs Committee voted unanimously for the bill that designates Israel as a “major strategic partner” and waives visa requirements for Israelis who visit the U.S.  “During this volatile time across the Middle East, this bill signals that the U.S. Congress continues to support the people of Israel and reaffirms our commitment to seek new paths to improve our bilateral relationship,” Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the hawkish Republican chair of the committee, said in a statement.  The legislation is a major priority for the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee, and has an overwhelming majority of politicians backing it.

The Senate version of the bill created an uproar last year because it would induct Israel into the visa program–giving both Americans and Israelis visa-free travel to each others’ countries–with an exception for travelers “jeopardizing the security of the State of Israel.”  Given that Arab-Americans face harassment and have been denied entry for “security reasons” without evidence by Israel, groups like the U.S. Campaign to End the Occupation, the Arab-American Institute and more fought hard against the language.  A Congressional letter signed by 16 officials expressed concern that Israel was “disproportionately singling out, detaining and denying entry to Arab and Muslim Americans,” and the Obama administration shared those concerns, according to the Associated Press.

But the House version does not contain the Senate’s language.  Still, the measure, which has widespread support, seems likely to pass with other provisions that activists for Palestinian rights see as deeply problematic.

The backdrop to today’s House hearing was continued assertions that the Senate bill, authored by Barbara Boxer, would codify discrimination against Arab- and Palestinian-American travelers, as well as activists on their way to the West Bank, who also face denials of entry.  Ros-Lehtinen, sensitive to that criticism, called those claims “misinformation.”  And during the hearing, Brad Sherman, a Democrat from California, also pushed back against the discrimination charge–despite ample evidence that people like Palestinian-Americans Nour Joudah and Sandra Tamari have been turned away from Israel for no reason.

“Israel does not discriminate against Arab-Americans.  There has been this effort by anti-Israel extremists to accuse Israel of that,” Sherman said.  “We have a no-fly list, they have a no-enter list, and those associated with Islamic extremism tend to find their name on both.” The California Democrat added: “My hope is that in conference this bill will be amended to help Israel achieve full participation in the visa waiver program…When they [Israelis] want to see Mickey Mouse, they should see the real one.” Watch the full House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing on this bill here, starting at 52:27:

Mike Coogan, the legislative coordinator for the U.S. Campaign to End the Occupation, told me that he remains concerned about denials of entry–even if the House language prevails in the final version that both legislative bodies pass.  “I am concerned that Congress will shield Israel from accountability when it comes to enforcing the standards and requirements of Israel’s participation in the Visa Waiver Program.  Unfortunately, members of Congress have a pattern of singling out Israel for impunity, even when Israel consistently and flagrantly violates U.S. laws and treaty obligations,” Coogan said.

The U.S. Campaign to End the Occupation, along with other groups, also sought to convince officials to insert these amendments: that Israel provide “U.S. citizens with reciprocal visa waivers” and that Congress document “incidents of Israel denying entry to U.S. citizens, especially when such denial of entry appears to be motivated by the race, ethnicity, religion, or political opinion of U.S. citizens.” The amendments were not included in the legislation that passed today.

Coogan also criticized the designation of Israel as a “major strategic partner”–a one of a kind term that applies to no other country.  The bill’s language does not specify what exactly it means to be a “major strategic partner.”

“Many see this as an attempt by Israel to secure a mutual defense treaty without the debate about what the implications of that would mean,” said Coogan, who also pointed out that the legislation calls for providing Israel with advanced combat aircraft and military tanker transports–equipment that would be of use in a potential war with Iran.

Beyond this bill, the issue of Israel’s denial of entries continues to make waves. The Christian Peacemakers Team, a group that monitors Israeli soldiers in occupied Hebron, recently filed a brief with the Israeli High Court charging that Israel denies entry to its members. And the Modern Language Association’s delegates passed a resolution at their latest conference criticizing Israel’s denial of entries to academics invited to Palestinian universities.

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