American-Jewish groups have cheered the progression of a bill designed to enhance U.S-Israel ties and let Israelis enter the United States for 90 days with a visa.
Having passed the Senate unanimously in September, President Obama must now sign off on the U.S.-Israel Strategic Partnership Act after its passage through Congress this week.
Among other things, the bill increases the value of emergency U.S. weaponry kept in Israel by $200 million, to a total of $1.8 billion. It also extends co-operation in the energy, water, homeland security, alternative fuel technology and cyber-security.
But the bill’s slow progression follows years of legislative wrangling. At issue was Israel’s desire to join the U.S. Visa Waiver Program, which requires reciprocal treatment for Americans visiting Israel, which would be unlikely.
This is because Israel blocks some Palestinian-Americans and people of Arab origin or Muslim faith from entering its territory. According to the US State Department, this includes “anyone who has parents or grandparents who were born or lived in the West Bank or Gaza,” even if they are U.S. citizens and don’t claim Palestinian nationality. Others say Israel’s critics are similarly refused entry into Tel Aviv’s Ben-Gurion Airport, and are instead forced to enter via Jordan or Egypt.
Powerful pro-Israel lobby groups in the U.S, including AIPAC, had pushed for Israel’s exemption for the requirement for reciprocity, but there were fears that this would entrench discrimination.
Mike Coogan from End Israeli Occupation said: “Given that Israel views the mere existence of Palestinians as a threat, this would essentially codify Israel’s discrimination against Palestinian-, Muslim- and Arab-Americans into U.S. law.”
As a result, lawmakers struck much of the visa-free language from the bill, while the Obama administration formed a working group to help Israel move closer to qualification. Likewise, senior Israeli officials suggested they may allow Palestinian-Americans to begin entering the country through Tel Aviv.
“I am proud that the House and Senate spoke with one voice to pass this bill,” said Sen. Barbara Boxer, one of the bill’s two original sponsors. “I look forward to the president signing this critical legislation.”