Travel bill for Israelis rankles Arab-Americans

A House panel will take up a visa-free travel bill next week that critics say could allow Israel to legally discriminate against U.S. Muslims and Arabs or those critical of Israel.

The Foreign Affairs Committee is scheduled to vote Wednesday on legislation that would label Israel a “major strategic partner.” One provision in particular states that Israelis should be allowed to travel to the United States without a visa “when Israel satisfies the requirements for inclusion in such program.”

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The language has rankled Arab-American advocates. They say Congress shouldn't be putting such a concession on the table, even with caveats, unless Israel ceases what they call the violation of American Muslims' civil rights.

“From our perspective, it should be the opposite,” said Maya Berry, executive director of the Arab American Institute. “It should be members of Congress asking questions and perhaps drafting legislation that says, 'How do we fix this problem?' As opposed to suggesting that it can be included in this broader bill that says Israel's our best friend forever.”

The House bill, authored by Middle East panel chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), has 349 co-sponsors and is expected to sail through the committee. A similar effort in the Senate by Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) has attracted 53 co-sponsors.

The State Department itself 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.”

The Israeli embassy did not respond to a request for comment.

A Ros-Lehtinen aide said the bill's visa provision wouldn't change the status quo in any way: Israel would still have to abide by all of the program's requirements in order to be eligible.

Berry said the provisions in the House bill are less concerning than those in Boxer's bill. That legislation 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.”

Critics say that would create an exemption not offered to the 37 other nations that have visa-free travel to the United States.

Pro-Israel groups that have been lobbying for visa-free travel dispute that interpretation.

“That is a complete mischaracterization of the Senate waiver language,” said a source at a pro-Israel organization. “The Boxer language was put in the measure to ensure appropriate treatment for all Americans and required cabinet level certification – the campaign against the provision has been patently false and misleading.”

The visa exemption effort also faces obstacles because of U.S. national security concerns. In particular, U.S. consular officials have been rejecting Israeli visa applications beyond the 3 percent threshold set by law for participation in the visa waiver program.

 

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