The US House of Representatives on Wednesday overwhelmingly passed the United States-Israel Strategic Alliance and Security Act, which is aimed at further enhancing the two countries’ already strong defense relationship.
The bill names Israel a “major strategic partner” of the US — no other nation has the status — and includes measures that would expand cooperation on areas such as missile development, homeland security, energy and agriculture.
The measure also calls for expanding the reserve of US weapons stockpiled in Israel and asks the secretary of state to look into whether Israel has satisfied requirements to join the US Visa Waiver Program, which would allow for unfettered travel between the countries.
The final vote was 410-1, and the legislation now moves to the US Senate, where a similar bill is already being formulated.
AIPAC said in a statement that the House bill would “dramatically strengthen the relationship between the two allies as they work to confront new threats and challenges in the Middle East.”
“Today, the House once again reaffirmed its commitment to an unbreakable US-Israel relationship and Israel’s right to defend itself by itself,” Republican Congressman Peter Roskam said in a statement.
“From Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons to the civil war in Syria and political turmoil in Egypt, ongoing volatility in the Middle East underscores the importance of a secure and stable Jewish State of Israel,” he said. “I look forward to working with my Senate colleagues to send this long overdue bill to the President’s desk.”
Roskam is a ranking member of the Republican Israel Caucus and was one of the early co-sponsors of the legislation.
The fact that the bill advanced out of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs to the House floor without language that would admit Israel into the Visa Waiver Program was a setback, according to observers.
As of today, 37 countries are part of the US Visa Waiver Program, which enables their citizens to travel to the US without applying for a visa prior to their trip and stay for a period of up to 90 days. One of the key requisites for countries wishing to join the program is to have a rejection rate of less than 3 percent for citizens who apply for a US visa. Almost 10 percent of Israeli applicants (12,000 people) were rejected last year, up from 5.4% in 2012 and 2.5% in 2007.
The Obama administration and some lawmakers had expressed concern that the proposed legislation didn’t do enough to eliminate discrimination against Palestinian and Arab Americans seeking to enter Israel’s borders. They also say Israel still fails to meet other legal requirements for the program.
The language in the Senate bill, proposed by Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), requires that the Homeland Security secretary grant Israel visa waiver status after certifying with the secretary of state that Israel “has made every reasonable effort, without jeopardizing the security of the State of Israel, to ensure that reciprocal travel privileges are extended to all United States citizens.”
House staffers say that lawmakers, pro-Israel leaders among them, have raised objections to the clause, “without jeopardizing the security of the State of Israel,” because it appears to validate what they see as Israel’s tendency to turn away Arab Americans without giving a reason.
None of the other 37 countries currently in the Visa Waiver Program has such a caveat written into law.
According to former Israeli ambassador to the US Michael Oren, 142 Americans in all were denied entry to Israel in 2012, while about 626,000 were allowed in. That amounts to a refusal rate of 0.023 percent, or about 1 in every 4,400 people.
The Associated Press and JTA contributed to this report.