A Bill that gives Israelis visa-free entry to the US is gaining momentum in Congress despite opposition from rights groups who say the law discriminates against Arab and Muslim Americans.
The legislation stalled last year after the outcry but the House of Representatives foreign affairs committee unanimously voted to move the bill forward on Wednesday.
The law would designate Israel as a “major strategic partner” of the US, a new category only applying to Israel, and enhance everything from trade relations to military and intelligence cooperation.
It would also grant Israel entry into the US visa waiver programme, which would allow Israeli citizens to receive 90-day tourist visas on arrival in the US.
There are two versions of the bill, one on the House and one in the Senate.
The House version requires Israel to reciprocate the visa waiver for all Americans, calling on Israeli authorities to meet “the requirements for inclusion in such programme”, referring to reciprocal treatment for all Americans wishing to travel to Israel.
However, the Senate version only demands that Israeli officials make “every reasonable effort, without jeopardising the security of the state of Israel” to give reciprocal travel privileges, which critics say is a loophole that legally allows Israel to bar Americans based on their race or religion.
Both versions of the bill must pass their respective chambers of Congress before a final version is agreed upon by a committee made up of members of both chambers and submitted to the president, who could sign it into law or veto the legislation.
Critics say the Senate’s softer tone to the legislation would allow Israel to be the only country out of 37 others participating in the waiver programme to be allowed to hold Americans to a different standard of treatment based on their race or religion.
Israel routinely turns back US citizens at their borders and from the West Bank. The US State Department issued a travel advisory that warns US citizens possessing a Palestinian Authority identity card or of Arab or Muslim origin may be barred “without explanation”.
The US-Israel Strategic Partnership Act has been a priority for the powerful pro-Israel lobby group Aipac after their efforts to persuade members of Congress to vote for more sanctions on Iran appear to have failed. The House version has 351 co-sponsors and the Senate bill now has a majority — 53 out of 100 — sponsoring the legislation.
“At this point [Aipac] is losing on Iran and this is their prove-your-loyalty bill,” said James Zogby, the president of the Arab American Institute in Washington and a regular columnist for The National. “Members [of Congress] are being pushed really hard.”
Even the House version of the bill would give Israel a “blank cheque” to legally discriminate against Arab- and Muslim-Americans, Mr Zogby said.
“Israel is not supposed to get aid if they build settlements — they do and they get aid. Who in Congress is going to be brave enough to say we’ve got a State Department report that says Israel discriminates, I think we ought to enforce our provision here and deny them the visa waiver,” he said.
The author of the House bill, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, dismissed criticism, saying that her version requires Israel to certify that it is reciprocating to all US citizens.
“Israel does not discriminate against Arab-Americans. There has been this effort by anti-Israel extremists to accuse Israel of that,” said Brad Sherman, a Democratic House member from California, before the vote on Wednesday. “We have a no-fly list, they have a no-enter list, and those associated with Islamic extremism tend to find their name on both lists.”
Last year, there was pushback from officials in the Obama administration who opposed it because of the unfair treatment faced by US citizens travelling to Israel, as well as intelligence officials on national security grounds, the AP reported.