U.S. Israel Strategic Partnership Sidelined by Power Struggles and Partisan Politics

Decision to pull law also reflects ongoing disagreements and distrust between Jerusalem and Washington over the administration’s nuclear talks with Iran.

Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev
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Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Sen. Robert Menendez
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Sen. Robert MenendezCredit: AP
Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev

The AIPAC-backed legislation on upgrading strategic relations between Israel and the United States has been sidelined by a power struggle between Congress and the White House, by the approaching Congressional elections in November and by the lingering disagreements and even distrust between Jerusalem and Washington over ongoing nuclear talks with Iran.

As first reported on Monday in Foreign Policy, Democratic New Jersey Senator Robert Menendez abruptly decided to pull the U.S.-Israel Strategic Partnership Act from being discussed on Tuesday in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that he heads. The cause of Menendez’s surprising retreat was an amendment introduced by Tennessee Republican Bob Corker that would have enabled Congress to hold hearings on any deal reached in the nuclear talks with Tehran and to hold an embarrassing, albeit non-binding, “vote of disapproval” on the agreement.

And while the Act itself is considered to be the jewel in the crown on the agenda of the pro-Israel lobby, an AIPAC source squarely backed the Corker Amendment which the White House vehemently opposes. “AIPAC supports provisions such as the Corker Amendment which underscore the key role that Congress must play in defining the terms of an acceptable deal [with Iran] and its implementation, an AIPAC source said.

Informed Jewish sources added, however, that the suspension of the Senate’s consideration of the act – passed in March by the House of Representatives by a whopping 410-1 majority – was only temporary and that a compromise will likely be reached. The sources added however that the standoff is another manifestation of the ongoing distrust of both the Israeli government and its supporters in Washington of the P5+1 talks with Tehran over Iran’s nuclear program.

To the ongoing tensions over the Iran deal – which previously peaked in February when an AIPAC –backed effort to legislate new sanctions on Iran fell through – one must now add the approaching election campaign and the Republican effort to embarrass the Democrats – even at Israel’s expense. “They’re stuck between a rock and a hard place,” a senior Jewish official said yesterday of Democratic senators, “They don’t want to cross the White House in public but they certainly don’t want to vote against a pro-Israel bill at a time when they are struggling not to lose control of the Senate altogether.”

The proposed bill would designate Israel as a “major strategic partner” for the United State. It would expand authority to deploy U.S weapons stockpiles in Israel as well as the ability to transfer weapons and ammunition to Israel itself, would direct the secretary of commerce to take steps to make Israel eligible for a Strategic Trade Authorization (STA) license exemption for certain items subject to export controls, would call for increased collaboration on a wide variety of areas such as energy water and homeland security and would lay the foundation for the establishment of a joint United States-Israel Cyber Security Center.

Until now, most of the media attention on the act has focused almost exclusively on its provisions that seek to enable Israel to join the Visa Waiver Program. These efforts have been stymied by Israel’s reluctance to allow free and unfettered entry to Israel for Americans of Palestinian origin as well as by the high percentage of rejections of Israeli visa applications, which are double the maximum proscribed by law.

The visa waiver dispute is also thought to be one of the reasons for the spate of recent publications about alleged Israeli espionage in the U.S. that have heightened tensions between the two countries. Prior to today’s pulling of the law by Menendez, Democratic California Senator Barbara Boxer had planned to withdraw her visa waiver proposals that would have circumvented the current obstacles to its implementation.

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