The American-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) is bruised from the fight over Iran sanctions. But that didn’t stop the group from helping to push through legislation designating Israel as a “major strategic partner”–a first for any U.S. ally. The measure has been a major lobby priority since last year.
Today, the House of Representatives passed the U.S.-Israel Strategic Partnership Act by a 410-1 vote. The lone dissenting voice was Representative Thomas Massie (R-KY), a libertarian aligned with Senator Rand Paul. The Senate has not voted on their version of the bill yet, though it has strong support there, with 55 co-sponsors from both parties.
In addition to the “major strategic partner” designation, the bill allows for Israelis to travel to the U.S. without visas, though the State Department has to certify that Israel meets the requirements for the visa-waiver program. The legislation also calls for giving Israel advanced combat aircraft and military tanker transports. It was authored by the hawkish Florida Republican Ileana Ros-Lehtinen.
“Israel has…never been as strong as it is now. Think of Israel’s economic dynamism, its entrepreneurial spirit, innovative culture, and you get a better sense of why there is so strong a bond between the United States and Israel,” said Rep. Ed Royce (D-CA), the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, which passed the legislation in late January. “It’s this dynamic economy and society that are building blocks for Israel’s Qualitative Military Edge and its relationship with the U.S. The U.S. benefits when Israel is strong. This legislation stands by our values; stands by our interests; and stands by Israel.”
The liberal Zionist lobby group J Street applauded the bill’s passage.
The legislation had languished in Congress for a year. While it was a priority for AIPAC at last year’s conference, it was held up because of concerns that it would codify Israel’s discrimination against activists and Arab- and Palestinian-American travelers. Those concerns, pushed to the forefront by a coalition of groups, led to the stripping out of language that gave Israel a right to deny entry to travelers if they threatened the state’s security. The security pretext is a favored tool used by Israeli authorities to deny people entry.
The U.S.-Israel Strategic Partnership Act was one of the initiatives AIPAC members pushed for when lobbying Congress on Tuesday. AIPAC activists also asked elected officials to sign onto a pair of letters stressing that Congress should be informed of the nuclear negotiations with Iran. As the Jewish Telegraphic Agency‘s Ron Kampeas reported, the letter for the House of Representatives, which J Street also backed, “does not include AIPAC’s previous calls for new and enhanced sanctions” and “does not include prescriptions for what the outcome of an agreement should look like.” The Senate letter, on the other hand, does include prescriptions for a deal with Iran, like the dismantling of enrichment capacity–a demand Iran has categorically rejected.
The fight over visa-waivers for Israelis may not be over. The US-Israel Strategic Partner bill now shifts to the Senate. Their version still contains a provision allowing Israel to deny entry to those who jeopardize the country’s security.