Washington — 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.
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.
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.
Arab-American activists complained to committee members that while the law requires that American visa policies be met with reciprocal measures toward U.S. citizens, Americans from Arab and Muslim descent are singled out and many times mistreated when trying to enter Israel. One of them, Nour Joudah, who taught in a Ramallah school funded by the United States Agency for International Development, was not allowed to re-enter Israel in February 2013.
“I was told repeatedly by Israeli officials at the border that my American passport was irrelevant,” she said in a statement. “How is this a country that has earned a spot in what is supposed to be a reciprocal Visa Waiver Program?”
Here too, the initial language advocated by the pro-Israel lobby had to undergo careful tweaks to address the issue of Israeli profiling. It now puts the administration in charge of making the determination of whether Israel has satisfied the reciprocity requirements.
Even with the changes made to the language, the bill would still be instrumental in getting Israel closer to the Visa Waiver Program. But as things currently stand in the committee, it is not clear if and when the bill will be brought to a vote.
It also remains to be seen whether the prospect of easing procedures for Israeli tourists was worth the public and acrimonious debate over Israel’s spying practices and its discriminatory entry policies, which the legislation brought about.
Contact Nathan Guttman at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @nathanguttman