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Congress to pass landmark Israel partnership bill

Bipartisan legislation, which has been a focus of AIPAC lobbying, will strengthen defense, energy cooperation

Rebecca Shimoni Stoil is the Times of Israel's Washington correspondent.

Top of the US Capitol building, the seat of Congress, in Washington, DC (photo credit: AP/Jacquelyn Martin/File)
Top of the US Capitol building, the seat of Congress, in Washington, DC (photo credit: AP/Jacquelyn Martin/File)

WASHINGTON — Congress was poised to give its final approval Wednesday afternoon to a bill that supporters say will create a unique status for Israel and serve as a framework for increased partnership in a number of key sectors, particularly energy and defense. If all goes as expected, the long-anticipated legislation will represent a significant achievement for the pro-Israel groups that pushed for its passage.

“This bipartisan measure will strengthen cooperation between our two countries on a wide range of issues from defense to energy, ensure that Israel has the resources to defend herself in an emergency, and affirm Israel’s ability to participate in the visa waiver program as long as she meets existing requirements,” said Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA), who authored the Senate version of the United States-Israel Strategic Partnership Act of 2014, along with Roy Blunt (R-MO).

“This legislation sends a clear message that America’s bond with Israel remains unbreakable, and I am proud that it passed the Senate unanimously,” she said.

Although the bill is most likely to be considered on Wednesday, there’s a chance that scheduling uncertainties could push it to later in the week.

Senator Barbara Boxer (photo credit: courtesy)
Senator Barbara Boxer (photo credit: courtesy)

The bill, which has been a keystone of AIPAC lobbying since early 2013, issues a Sense of Congress describing Israel as a “major strategic partner” of the United States, reflecting the importance that Congress ascribes to the US-Israel relationship and giving name to the legislation as a whole.

Following a summer in which the US and Israel tangled over weapons resupplies during and immediately following Operation Protective Edge, the bill would permit an increase of $200 million in the value of US weapons held in Israel, bringing the total to $1.8 billion. The stockpiles in Israel are designed to allow the US quick resupply for its own needs in case of a major Mideast conflict, but can also be used by Israel in the event of an emergency as long as Israel reimburses the US for weapons used.

The bill also requires the president to take steps so that Israel may be included in the top-tier category of the Strategic Trade Authorization Exception. In 2011, the Commerce Department created the exception, which allows 44 countries to qualify for some exceptions to arms export licensing requirements. Israel is currently in the second-tier category, which provides a more restricted list of license-free goods.

Another section authorizes the president to carry out cooperation between the United States and Israel across a range of policy areas, including energy, water, homeland security, agriculture, and alternative fuel technologies. Although the bill does not detail what these sectors entail, it is meant to serve as a framework for future legislation further defining the US-Israel relationship in those fields.

A slightly more robust framework for cyber-security cooperation is also delineated, with the bill requiring the president to submit a report to Congress on the feasibility and advisability of expanding US-Israeli cooperation on cyber issues, including sharing and advancing technologies related to the prevention of cybercrimes. The president is also required to provide Congress with an update on the implementation of a series of objectives to assist in the defense of Israel that were enacted in 2012.

An Israeli F-15I fighter jet (photo credit: Tsahi Ben-Ami/Flash 90)
An Israeli F-15I fighter jet (photo credit: Tsahi Ben-Ami/Flash 90)

The administration will also be required to include additional information in the already-mandatory report about the potential impact on Israel’s Qualitative Military Edge from any proposed sale of defense items that requires Congressional approval. The new, more extensive reporting would require that for any defense item considered to be “major defense equipment” — including such significant arms as F-16 aircraft, tanks, armored personnel carriers, and anti-armor missile systems — the administration must provide a detailed assessment of Israel’s ability to counter the specific risks presented if it were to be transferred to Israel’s neighbors.

Perhaps the most hotly contested section of the bill was a statement of policy on the visa waiver program, a section that passed through a number of permutations and changes before its final version.

After much debate, the Senate took up the House’s version of the statement, which reads that “it shall be the policy of the United States to include Israel in the list of countries that participate in the visa waiver program when Israel satisfies, and as long as Israel continues to satisfy the requirements for inclusion in the program.”

The amendment, sponsored by Boxer, was the only amendment added to the bill’s text when it was received in the Senate by unanimous consent on September 18.

Preliminary action has already begun on turning the section on increased energy cooperation into reality. The bill’s text recognizes energy cooperation between the US and Israel as being in the strategic interest of the United States and encourages increased collaboration between the two countries’ academic communities and governments.

The bill allows for the authorization of a US-Israel Energy Center in the United States, engaging academic institutions and the private sector to further dialogue, collaboration and academic cooperation in energy innovation technology and technology transfer, among other things. Among the center’s goals are to develop more robust academic cooperation in offshore energy development, energy innovation technology and engineering, and water science.

The specific details of the center’s structure will be worked out by the US Department of Energy and the Israeli Ministry of Energy and Water, with input from Israeli and American universities and private sector entities.

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