Tuesday was supposed to be the day that the Senate Foreign Relations Committee passed the U.S.-Israel Strategic Partnership Act, a bill that would bolster the two countries’ alliance and provide a path for Israel to enter into the visa-waiver program. But it didn’t happen.
A Republican attempt to hamstring a potential U.S. diplomatic deal with Iran on its nuclear energy program unexpectedly scuttled the vote for now, though the legislation is still likely to pass in the coming weeks. The lead Senate author of the legislation, Barbara Boxer (D-CA), told Al-Monitor‘s Julian Pecquet she would try to take the bill to a full Senate vote in order to avoid a divisive vote on Iran.
As Foreign Policy‘s John Hudson first reported, Senator Robert Menendez (D-NJ), a leading pro-Israel lawmaker who is the head of the foreign relations committee, pulled the bill from consideration on Monday. The surprising move came in response to an Iran-related amendment Senator Bob Corker (R-TN) sought to attach to the U.S.-Israel Strategic Partnership Act. Corker’s addition to the legislation would have required President Obama to submit a final deal with Iran to a Congressional vote and would allow for hearings on the diplomacy, though it would not have allowed Congress to block the deal if the U.S. agreed to one with Iran.
The American-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), which works closely with Menendez, said they supported the Corker amendment. But the White House did not, and Menendez wanted to avoid putting fellow Democrats in the position of having to choose between the president and AIPAC.
So Menendez blocked it from coming up for a vote. Writing in LobeLog, Mitchell Plitnick says that the amendment brought to the fore tensions between supporting Democrats and supporting AIPAC and the GOP. Plitnick writes that the move is a miscalculation that “marks another step in the increasing polarization of Israel as a domestic U.S. political issue.”
The legislation has been an AIPAC priority since 2013, and the House of Representatives easily passed the bill in March. The Senate version has been highly controversial, though, because of a provision that would allow Israel entry into the visa-waiver program alongside a big caveat favorable to the country: a security exception that would have received U.S. blessing.
The original Senate bill, authored by Barbara Boxer (D-CA), would give Israelis the right to enter the U.S. without possessing a visa. But Boxer’s original version says that while Israel would be required to allow U.S. travelers the same visa-free privilege, the state could bar those who Israel deems a security threat. Israel’s denials of entry to Palestinian- and Arab-Americans, alongside pro-Palestine activists, are routinely justified by invoking security threats.
Because of opposition from the State Department and activists, Boxer will reportedly drop the security waiver from the bill. As Allison Deger reported here, Israeli officials have said that they will reduce discrimination against Palestinian-American travelers in order to enter into the visa program. But another explosive element has been added into the mix: opposition from the U.S. intelligence community, who say that visa-free travel for Israelis could increase espionage here.
Meanwhile, those opposed to Israel’s entry into the visa-waiver program while it continues to discriminate against travelers continue to ramp up their efforts. This afternoon, the U.S. Campaign to End the Occupation is hosting a panel on Capitol Hill highlighting Israeli border policies that discriminate against Muslim- and Arab-Americans.