Senate okays US-Israel Strategic Partnership bill

Legislation brands Israel ‘major partner,’ increases US weapons stockpiles in Israel, presages more cooperation in defense, energy, agriculture

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

The Senate side of the United States Capitol building in Washington, DC (Wikimedia Commons/File)
The Senate side of the United States Capitol building in Washington, DC (Wikimedia Commons/File)

WASHINGTON — With over three-quarters of its members as co-sponsors, the Senate unanimously adopted the United States-Israel Strategic Partnership Act late Thursday evening. The bill declares Israel to be a “major strategic partner” of the United States, and its proponents say it will lay the foundation for expanded US-Israel cooperation in defense, energy, agriculture, and a number of other key sectors.

The bipartisan legislation was authored by Senators Barbara Boxer (D-CA) and Roy Blunt (R-MO) had 81 co-sponsors, out of a total of 100 Senators.

“America’s long-standing relationship and strong cooperation with Israel dates back to the presidency of fellow Missourian Harry S. Truman,” Blunt said following the bill’s passage. “I’m pleased the Senate has passed this bipartisan bill to reaffirm and broaden the important US-Israel alliance through security, energy, and trade during this critical time in the Middle East region.”

In addition to declaring that Israel is a “major strategic partner” of the United States, the legislation increases the frequency and detail of US government reporting on Israel’s qualitative military edge. It also includes a provision that will expand the authority for forward-deployed US weapons stockpiles in Israel.

Under the new legislation, the US can increase by $200 million the value of US weapons held in Israel — bringing the total value of US weapons stored in Israel to a total of $1.8 billion. The forward-based weapons stockpiles in Israel have doubled in their value in the past two years, and are meant to speed up US resupply in the event of a crisis in the Middle East.

The weapons in the stockpile can also be used by Israel in the event of an emergency, with Israel reimbursing the US for any weapons used. This stockpile — known as War Reserves Stock Allies-Israel (WRSA-I) — jumped to the headlines this summer after the US let Israel use 40mm grenades and 120mm mortar rounds located therein. Under scrutiny, the US placed additional reviews on the further transfer of armaments from the US to Israel during Operation Protective Edge.

The legislation will also upgrade Israel’s trade status to expedite export licensing, authorize the president to provide assistance to promote cooperation in water, homeland security, agriculture and alternative fuel technologies. In addition, it creates new mechanisms for in enhanced energy cooperation, including the establishment of a US-Israel Center of Excellence in energy and water engineering, and supporting the development of research and development and academic partnerships.

Passed days after Christopher Painter, the State Department’s Coordinator for Cyber Issues, visited Israel to discuss cyber-security, the bill also requires that the president study the feasibility of expanding US-Israel cooperation on cyber security.

It also includes a carefully-worded provision to encourage the inclusion of Israel in the Visa Waiver Program. Allowing Israelis to enter the US without securing a tourist visa at a US consulate has been a recurring topic for years, but Israel is still not included among the three-dozen states with visa-free entry to the US.

Boxer described the bill “affirming Israel’s ability to participate in the visa waiver program as long as she meets existing requirements.”

Earlier this year, State Department Spokeswoman Jen Psaki said that Israel has failed to meet the criteria to join the program, but State Department officials have said they’re working with Israel to bring the country into compliance with the requirements for consideration.

A source at a pro-Israel organization described the visa waiver provision as a major advancement, in that its inclusion in the original House version of the legislation spurred the renewed round of US-Israel talks to bring Israel into compliance with the benchmarks. Israel’s high rate of visa rejections – the number of Israelis denied US visas – is above the US requirement for admission, and the two states have begun working together to try to address that metric.

The bill also reiterates US support for a negotiated political settlement between the Israelis and Palestinians resulting in two states living side-by-side in peace and security.

The passage of the bill was welcomed by AIPAC, which wrote in a statement Friday morning that “this bill will dramatically strengthen and expand the US-Israel alliance as a way to confront new threats and challenges in the Middle East.”

William Daroff, senior vice president for public policy and director of the Washington office for Jewish Federations, also commended the legislation, saying that JFNA was “delighted that the Senate has come together to pass this important legislation building upon the remarkable relationship between Israel and the United States.”

“In declaring Israel a ‘major strategic partner,’ the Senate has made perfectly clear that the Jewish state is and will remain one of our strongest allies in the world,” Daroff continued. “Alongside this week’s House resolution condemning anti-Semitism throughout the globe, it is heartening to know that at times of need, the Jewish community will always be able to count on our Congressional leaders for support.”

The House of Representatives adopted a companion bill in March 2014, and pro-Israel advocates, including AIPAC, are pushing both houses to move quickly to reconcile the two versions of the legislation in order to advance it to the president for final approval. Differences between the two bills are described by those familiar with the legislation as ‘minimal’, and there are hopes that the legislation can be reconciled during the lame-duck session of Congress following the November midterm elections.

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