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.

(page 2 of 3)

The American Israel Public Affairs Committee made clear it would like to see the Corker amendment pass.

“AIPAC supports provisions such as the Corker amendment which underscore the key role that Congress must play in defining the terms of an acceptable deal and its implementation,” an AIPAC source told the Forward.

Given this dilemma, Democrats chose to shelve the bill rather than bring it to a vote with the Iran amendment included. In the Tuesday hearing, Boxer said she was “disappointed and saddened” by the delay and vowed to find ways to move the bill forward despite the delays.

But differences over Iran policy were not the only rift revealed between the United States and Israel during deliberations over the visa waiver.

As members of the committee neared agreement over the terms for including Israel in the waiver program, members of the intelligence community reached out to lawmakers in the House and the Senate and asked to brief them behind closed doors on the issue. At a briefing in February they painted an alarming picture of widespread Israeli espionage, both technological and commercial, against the United States and warned that opening America’s gates to Israelis would make it even harder to control Israeli spying operations.

Leaks to Roll Call and Newsweek depicted Israel as “crossing a red line” in its espionage efforts and reported that Israel had refused to end its operations even after being repeatedly warned.

The reports set off a firestorm, leading Israeli officials on all levels to vehemently deny the reports to their American counterparts.

“I made clear that we completely reject the series of these baseless and ridiculous articles that were published in Newsweek,” Israel’s minister of intelligence, Yuval Steinitz, told reporters on a conference call after concluding a meeting with Senator Dianne Feinstein, chairwoman of the Senate intelligence committee.

Feinstein’s response to the Israeli denial indicated the case was not as clear. “I accept him at face value, yes,” she said of Steinitz’s strong statement, “until I find to the contrary.” She added gravely, “I’ll do my due diligence too.”

Adding fuel to the debate over Israeli espionage was another report from the trove of National Security Agency documents revealed by Edward Snowden. A 2013 NSA report, included in new book by journalist Glenn Greenwald, ranked Israel as “the third most aggressive intelligence service against the U.S.,” after China and Russia.

The warnings of the intelligence officials did not go unheeded by members of the Senate committee. A set of revisions to the original language made clear it does not provide Israel with automatic access to the waiver program and that the administration has the final word on whether countries are eligible for exemption. This eligibility depends, among other things, on satisfying security considerations raised by intelligence agencies.

The new language leaving it up to the administration to decide if Israel has lived up to the U.S. security requirements “will allow the intelligence community to make sure its concerns are heard,” said a Senate source speaking on condition of anonymity.

Several congressional sources have raised the possibility that the intelligence community’s decision to try and derail the legislation was not necessarily an expression of concern that lenient entry policies would cause a security risk, but rather an attempt to send a message to Israel that there is a price to pay for its continuous espionage activity in America.

The third issue that surfaced during the debate over the visa waiver law was the most difficult to dismantle: Israel’s racial and ethnic policies as seen through the profiling conducted at its border entries.



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