Bill urges more US-Israel security work

Bush signs legislation implementing recommendations of 9/11 Commission.

US army bloody gd 298.88 (photo credit: AP)
US army bloody gd 298.88
(photo credit: AP)
New reporting requirements about the US-Saudi relationship, revised visa guidelines that could make it easier for Israelis to visit America, strengthened US-Israel security cooperation and greater protection for high-risk institutions including synagogues are all part of boosted antiterrorism measures signed into law by US President George W. Bush Friday. The new legislation, which mostly implements unfulfilled recommendations of the September 11 Commission, comes at a time of heightened tension in the US-Saudi relationship. Voices in America are increasingly chastising the Gulf power for not doing more to help stem violence in Iraq and otherwise back US efforts in the Middle East. That criticism has contributed to congressional displeasure at a planned multi-billion arms sale to Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states, with more than 100 representatives, mostly Democrats, vowing to vote against the deal. The September 11 Commission, set up to investigate the terror attacks of that day and recommend corrective measures, had found that Saudi Arabia was a "problematic ally in combating Islamic extremism," and called for the US to "confront problems with Saudi Arabia in the open and build a relationship beyond oil, a relationship that both sides can defend to their citizens and includes a shared commitment to reform." The White House has traditionally guarded its delicate relationship with the Saudis and initially balked at the reporting requirement in the legislation. The House bill originally called for Bush to report to Congress on his Strategic Dialogue with King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz al-Saud and the progress made on facilitating political reform in Saudi Arabia and working with the Saudis to combat terrorism. The administration objected to these demands, saying there were "possible constitutional implications regarding the president's foreign affairs authorities, particularly in his ability to engage in discussions and negotiations with foreign governments, as well as his ability to withhold information that impairs foreign relations or the national security of the United States." The language in the version approved by both houses and signed into law Friday instead calls for the administration to report to Congress its "long-term strategy to engage with the Saudi government to facilitate reform [and] combat terrorism." The administration has characterized the upcoming arms deal as stemming from a decade-long view of where things are headed in the Middle East, and one Capital Hill source said the reporting requirement was particularly significant in terms of Congress playing a role in understanding that strategy "not just in the question of terrorism, but in the question of Iran." When it comes to preventing further terror attacks, the measure established an office to oversee US collaboration with Israel and other key allies on this front, citing Israel specifically in the text. Being a country that aids America in fighting terror is also a key component for participation in the visa waiver program, which could be extended to allow Israeli tourists into America without a visa. The law gives the secretary of homeland security the discretion to include countries in the program who are currently ineligible but close to meeting the requirements, such as Israel. In reconciling the Senate and House versions of the bill, Congress wrote "that a modernization of the program is long overdue and that a careful and controlled expansion to countries who have not quite met existing program entrance requirements but who have been partners with the US in fighting terrorism is appropriate in order to promote greater international security cooperation." Bush, in signing the legislation, underscored the move and said he would "continue to work with Congress to advance our security and foreign policy objectives by allowing greater flexibility to bring some of our closest allies into the program." Jewish and pro-Israel leaders reacted positively to many of the new law's provisions. Nathan Diament, the public policy director for the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations, particularly welcomed a $20 million commitment of funds to at-risk institutions. The legislation "recognizes the vulnerability of at-risk non profits, and has responded by appropriating crucial resources to help them - including the Jewish community - adapt to the current security challenges confronting our institutions, including synagogues and schools alongside other non-profits," he said. "The funds make our community more secure."•