Numerous public reports and off-the-record accounts from legislators and staff signaled that the brazenness and late release of the Israel lobby's legislative demands blindsided both individual members and various committees. Provisions appeared tone deaf and legally problematic, even among Israel’s strongest supporters.
One such proposal, buried within AIPAC's long list of legislative demands, was language proposing that Israel be included in the U.S. Visa Waiver Program. The seemingly innocuous provision is easy to miss among a litany of other alarming proposals, including a tripwire provision to drag the U.S. into an Israeli initiated war with Iran, an exemption of Israel's annual military aid from sequestration cuts, and a vague but certainly problematic 'strategic ally' designation.
Shortly before its annual policy conference, AIPAC made known that it wanted Israel to be included in the Visa Waiver Program, and officials requested that adjustments be made to the program's requirement that Israel ‘extend reciprocal privileges to citizens and nationals of the United States.’
According to off the record accounts, AIPAC officials told members of Congress that there would need to be flexibility on this legal requirement to accommodate Israel's ongoing discrimination against Arab- and Muslim-Americans who attempt to travel to Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories.
Behind closed doors, members of Congress and legal counsel alike balked at the idea that Israel be allowed in the program but remain exempt from the reciprocity requirement. Attorneys for both individual members and committees privately advised that complying with the request would be a flagrant violation of certain U.S. laws barring discrimination, and would undermine the U.S. government's call for the equal protection of all its citizens traveling abroad. Both the House and Senate versions of the proposed legislation allow Israel to discriminate against Americans so long as it has ‘made every reasonable effort, without jeopardizing the security of the State of Israel’ to extend reciprocal travel privileges to U.S. citizens. Given that Israel views the mere existence of Palestinians as a threat, the United States Israel Strategic Partnership Act of 2013 would essentially codify Israel’s discrimination against Palestinian-, Muslim-, and Arab-Americans into U.S. law.
Although the number of co-sponsors continues to be low by AIPAC standards, the language would set a dangerous precedent. And even without a large number of co-sponsors, it could pass under unanimous consent or other rules used by members of Congress to stymie debate or give the impression that legislation has more support than is really the case.
While Israel and the U.S. both have long histories of promoting and acquiescing to discrimination against Arab- and Muslim-Americans, the low number of co-sponsors could be an indication that institutionalizing these discriminatory practices against U.S. passport holders on behalf of Israel is proving to be more difficult than AIPAC had anticipated.
It appears that AIPAC’s attempts to ensure military aid to Israel is exempted from sequestration, to outsource the U.S. decision-making process to begin a war with Iran, and to import Israel’s apartheid policies were too ambitious. Perhaps the recent overreach will help members of Congress recognize that their political futures are not inextricably tied to support for AIPAC legislation that undermines our commitment to human rights and encourages systematic discrimination against both Palestinians and Americans.
Coogan is the legislative coordinator for the U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation.