Congress Move To Ease Visa Rules for Israel Hits Snag Over Spying Reports

Lawmakers Shelve Bill Amid Capitol Hill Gamesmanship

Fair Deal? Israelis hope to be added to the visa waiver program for easier entry to the U.S. But the Jewish state’s robust spy program poses a hurdle, along with Israel’s alleged mistreatment of Palestinian-American travellers.
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Fair Deal? Israelis hope to be added to the visa waiver program for easier entry to the U.S. But the Jewish state’s robust spy program poses a hurdle, along with Israel’s alleged mistreatment of Palestinian-American travellers.

By Nathan Guttman

Published May 21, 2014.

The lines outside the American embassy in Tel Aviv are not about to get shorter any time soon.

An effort led by Israel, its friends in Congress and the pro-Israel lobby to exempt Israelis from the need for U.S. tourist visas when visiting America has turned into an endless battle, and its chances of success have suffered some significant setbacks.

The legislation in question, which would allow Israelis to enter visa-free, has exposed almost every sore point in the relations between Jerusalem and Washington: differences over dealing with Iran’s nuclear threat; American criticism of Israel’s institutional bias against non-Jews; and the deep-rooted fear of a massive Israeli espionage operation directed against its strongest ally.

Taken together, these factors have turned an otherwise uncontroversial piece of pro-Israel legislation, into a source of concern that has touched establishments on both sides.

The latest setback was delivered Tuesday, when Robert Menendez of New Jersey, the Democratic chairman of Senate Foreign Relations Committee, pulled a planned vote on the U.S.-Israel Strategic Partnership Act off the committee’s agenda at the last minute. The bill includes a call to include Israel in the list of nations participating in the Visa Waiver Program, which allows citizens from those countries to enter America for visits of up to three months without obtaining a visa.

The planned vote was a culmination of nearly a year of efforts by the bill’s key author, California Democratic Senator Barbara Boxer, and committee members from both sides of the aisle to hash out differences regarding its language.

But an eleventh hour political snag made the prospects of committee approval and a possible floor vote very slim. Menendez’s decision to withdraw the vote came as a response to an amendment inserted on May 15 by the committee’s ranking Republican, Bob Corker, which would tie approval of the bill to the outcome of nuclear negotiations with Iran. The proposed amendment requires the Obama administration to present to Congress within three days any deal reached with Iran and allows Congress to pass a resolution expressing disagreement with the accord.

Democrats argued that the sole purpose of the amendment was to drive a wedge between them and pro-Israel activists. They feared that a vote on the amendment would force Democratic committee members to either vote in favor a measure opposed by a Democratic president, or to oppose it and risk being viewed as unsupportive of Israel.



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