NEW YORK – An omnibus bill full of measures to improve the relationship between Israel and the United States has passed the US Senate, after being delayed since May.
The bill declares Israel a “major strategic partner” of the US; enhances Israel’s trade status to expedite export licensing; increases cooperation on energy, water engineering, research and development; and expands authority for forward-deployed US weapons stockpiles in the Jewish state.
But missing from the bill is action on an issue long encouraged by Israeli officials and their advocates on Capitol Hill – inclusion of Israel in the US visa-waiver program, which would allow smooth travel for Israelis.
The visa-waiver program has become controversial in recent weeks for reasons “entirely unrelated to Israel,” one Capitol Hill source familiar with the bill told The Jerusalem Post, “but because of what is going on with ISIS [Islamic State].”
Thousands of passport holders from countries within the program, including from the European Union, are now considered a national security risk with uninhibited access to the US homeland. The program removes an entire layer of screening that puts pressure on other intelligence tools and agents, members of Congress say.
The original draft of the bill, called the US-Israel Strategic Partnership Act, began to cut some of the red tape around the issue.
The US has been reticent to include Israel into the program because of Israel’s refusal rate for Americans at its own borders, possibly based on discriminatory principles, which goes against State Department policy for program entry. On the sidelines, conversations are now under way on how to lower Israel’s refusal rate.
As it passed, the bill “encourages” Israel’s inclusion in the program and, according to bill author Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-California), “affirms Israel’s ability to participate in the visa waiver program as long as she meets existing requirements.”
The declaration of Israel as a major strategic partner is an elevation from “major non-NATO ally,” Israel’s legal status as a US ally since 1988, and further binds the US executive to ensure Israel’s qualitative military edge in the region.
“It establishes an architecture for things like cyber security,” said one source with a pro-Israel organization, adding that it broadens the relationship in “a number of different areas.”
The bill seeks expeditious approval from the White House of longterm security guarantees to Israel over a decade, and increases its crisis stockpile of weaponry by a value of $200 million to a total of $1.8 billion, in addition to billions more toward other military projects.
The House of Representatives passed a similar bill in March.
Co-author of the bill Rep. Roy Blunt (R-Missouri) called the bill a bipartisan success “during this critical time in the Middle East region.”
Originally slated for passage in the Senate in May, Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tennessee), ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, proposed adding language to the bill that would trigger congressional hearings on any agreement between world powers and Iran on its nuclear program. Progress on the bill, co-sponsored by 81 senators, was delayed over the language.
The American Israel Public Affairs Committee applauded its passage on Friday.
“By declaring in legislation that Israel is a ‘major strategic partner’ of the United States, the bill lays the foundation for expanded US-Israel cooperation in a wide variety of spheres, including defense, intelligence, homeland security, cyber security, energy, water, agriculture and alternative fuel technologies,” the AIPAC statement read.
Meanwhile, the House of Representatives unanimously passed a resolution on Thursday night condemning the surfacing of broad anti-Semitism worldwide, and especially in Europe during the Gaza conflict this summer.
The resolution, written by Reps.
Jerrold Nadler (D-New York), Peter Roskam (R-Illinois), Nita Lowey (D-New York) and Kay Granger (R-Texas), calls on the State Department to “maintain combating anti-Semitism as a United States foreign policy priority.”
Citing a survey released in May by the Anti-Defamation League, the House agreed: the finding that 74 percent of those surveyed in the Middle East hold anti-Semitic views is “stunning.” In Europe, 26% of those surveyed held similar views.
“During Israel’s 2014 Operation Protective Edge aiming to stem the rocket fire and terrorist infiltrations by Hamas, Jews and Jewish institutions and property were attacked in Europe and elsewhere, including attempts to invade a synagogue in Paris, fire-bombings of synagogues in France and Germany, assaults on Jewish individuals, and swastikas spray-painted in a heavily Jewish area of London and also in Rome’s historic Jewish quarter,” the resolution reads.
The House condemned the popular comparison of Israeli governance to Nazism, and an environment throughout the European continent that has forced many Jewish families to conceal their religious identity.
Various tools at the State Department’s disposal, including its envoy to the Organization of Islamic Conference, participation in the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and its special envoy on the issue of anti-Semitism Ira Forman, should be fully utilized and redouble their efforts, the resolution determined.
The members lauded the governments in Paris, Berlin and Rome for their outspoken condemnation of the rise in hateful speech and actions. German Chancellor Angela Merkel held a rally in Berlin last week insisting that anti-Semitism had no place in Europe, particularly in her country.
Jewish leaders in Washington applauded the resolution on Friday morning.
“Through our work with Holocaust survivors and other vulnerable populations, we at Jewish Federations have seen firsthand the importance of fighting against anti-Semitism in our communities,” said William Daroff, senior vice president for public policy and the director of the Washington office for Jewish Federations.
“The past few months have made it clear to all that we live in a dangerous time, and it is comforting to know that the Jewish community has the unqualified support of our congressional leaders.”
On Friday, David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee, briefed a dozen key House members on the anti-Semitic surge, on AJC’s efforts to combat it and on what else can be done from Capitol Hill.
“We are present, working with government officials, civil society representatives and Jewish community leaders to energetically counter this surging tide of hatred that threatens not only Jews, but, make no mistake about it, the very fabric of the democratic societies where they live,” Harris said.
The National Jewish Democratic Council, Jewish Council for Public Affairs and the Rabbinical Assembly hailed its passage.
“We have been alarmed,” Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, executive vice president of the Rabbinical Assembly, said. “We will continue work alongside the State Department... to oppose all efforts to prevent any members of our international community from freely exercising their religion without fear of prosecution or violence.”