A couple of weeks back, we broke the story about how the visa waiver language in an AIPAC-backed Israel assistance bill differed in the Senate and House versions.
There’s much more in the bill than visa waivers, having to do with enhanced missile defense assistance, closer cooperation, etc. What intrigued me about the visa waiver language is that the Senate version was controversial enough that if it stood, it could torpedo a bill that the pro-Israel community otherwise strongly favors.
Now the principal sponsor of the Senate version, Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), says her language is misunderstood — it makes conditions for Israel’s entry into the visa waiver program more, not less, stringent.
A little background: The House version simply asks for periodic reports on how close Israel is to hewing to the strict requirements to be admitted to the coterie of 37 countries whose citizens are allowed to enter the United States without pre-arranged visas.
The Senate version, initiated by Boxer, requires Israel’s admittance into the visa waiver program, and appears to legislate an exception to one key proviso — reciprocity. Israel would not, under this language, be required to reciprocate free entry to American travelers.
Here’s the section in full. I’ve italicized the relevant language
SEC. 9. DESIGNATION OF ISRAEL AS VISA WAIVER PROGRAM COUNTRY.
Section 217(c)(2) of the Immigration and Nationality Act (8 U.S.C. 1187(c)(2)) is amended–
(1) in the matter preceding subparagraph (A), by inserting `subparagraph (G) and’ after `Except as provided in’; and
(2) by adding at the end the following:
`(G) ISRAEL- The State of Israel shall be designated as a program country on the date on which the Secretary of Homeland Security, after consultation with the Secretary of State, certifies that the Government of Israel–
`(i) has complied with all of the requirements set forth in subparagraphs (B) through (F); and
`(ii) 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.’.
“Without jeopardizing the security of the State of Israel” is a caveat that does not apply to any other country.
I asked a lot of people why Israel needed the caveat. Boxer’s people did not get back to me. The answer I kept getting from others is that Israel faces a greater terrorist threat than other visa waiver countries, although at least three countries in the program — Britain, Spain and France — have sustained terrorist attacks over the last decade. In the Spanish case, a major attack was carried out by foreign nationals, the very classification that underpins the proposed caveat.
Boxer has now weighed in, in a response to a Los Angeles Times op-ed by George Bisharat, a Palestinian American law professor who cites my story and says he is frequently delayed flying in and out of Israel.
The current visa waiver program requires participating countries to offer “reciprocal” travel privileges to Americans. My bill does not waive this requirement. In fact, it gives us important leverage to ensure Israel welcomes Americans by requiring a certification from our secretaries of Homeland Security and State that Israel has made “every” reasonable effort to grant reciprocal travel privileges to “all” Americans.
Boxer does not directly cite the “without jeopardizing the security” caveat, which qualifies the “every reasonable effort” she does mention.
However, she continues:
My legislation does note that Israel retains the right to deny entry to individuals based on national security concerns — a right enjoyed by every country around the globe. In fact, the U.S. explicitly warns countries that are granted entry into the visa waiver program that we retain the ability to deny entry to any foreign national who represents a “threat to the welfare, health, safety or security of the United States.”
Boxer is right about the warning, but it is part of the same subsection that describes such individuals as appearing in databases of potential threats:
AUTOMATED SYSTEM CHECK- The identity of the alien has been checked using an automated electronic database containing information about the inadmissibility of aliens to uncover any grounds on which the alien may be inadmissible to the United States, and no such ground has been found.
This begs the question: If Israel needs the caveat, why not make it clearer and attach it to standards that the United States observes?
The point of the critics of Israel’s admissions practices is that it seems arbitrary — something the State Department has noted in its Israel travel advisories reporting refusal of entry “without explanation.”
Boxer suggests that she is in fact informing Israel’s admittance policies with U.S. standards: The bill “gives us important leverage” by requiring certification from the secretaries of Homeland Security and State.
But both those posts are essentially political, which raises the spectre of a corrupt sword that cuts two ways: A secretary of state antagonistic to Israel could nix the program as a means of pressuring Israel (and once Israelis are allowed to freely travel to the United States, the threat of cutting off that privilege would portend real political pressure for an Israeli government); an Israel-friendly secretary, on the other hand, could look the other way while Israel practices admission standards that do not comport with those of the United States.