Boxer yields on Israel visa language

Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) is rewriting visa-free travel provisions in a pro-Israel bill that have rankled civil liberties groups and tied up her bill in Congress, The Hill has learned.

At issue is language that would exempt Israel from having to treat Americans the same way the U.S. treats Israelis before it can be eligible for visa-free travel. Critics say that would allow Israel to discriminate against Arab-Americans and critics of Israel with the U.S. government's blessing. 

“We are working to make some changes to the bill to address some of the concerns we have heard from her colleagues,” a Boxer aide told The Hill. “We are hoping to include this revised language when the bill is marked up in committee.”

Boxer's bill has 53 cosponsors, but the chairman and ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee – Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) and Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) - have not endorsed it. The main hangup is the visa-free travel waiver, which the State Department opposes, a senior congressional staffer working the issue told The Hill.

The original language in Boxer's bill mirrored that in legislation introduced by Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.) in the House. It calls for Israel to be granted a visa exemption if it “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.”

Sherman sought to introduce his bill into a larger pro-Israel bill that passed the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Wednesday, to no avail. His bill has 76 cosponsors, but neither Chairman Ed Royce (R-Calif.) or ranking member Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) are on board.

“I hope that we will defend this provision from outrageous attacks and strengthen it in conference [between the House and Senate bills],” Sherman said during Wednesday's markup. “We need Israelis to bring their Shekels here. We need to expand person-to-person contact. And I hope that this provision is not only defended but strengthened as it goes through the process.”

The chances of Congress granting Israel visa-free status this year are virtually nil, the House staffer said. The State Department itself publicly warns Americans traveling to Israel that they may be denied entry without being given a reason.

“Some U.S. citizens holding Israeli nationality, possessing a Palestinian identity card, or of Arab or Muslim origin have experienced significant difficulties in entering or exiting Israel or the West Bank,” the department says in its travel advisory. “Those with extensive travel to Muslim countries or U.S. citizens whom Israeli authorities suspect of being of Arab, Middle Eastern, or Muslim origin may also face additional questioning by immigration and border authorities, particularly if they ask that Israeli stamps not be entered into their passport.”

Please send tips and comments to Julian Pecquet: jpecquet@thehill.com

Follow us on Twitter: @TheHillGlobal and @JPecquetTheHill