Congress OKs bill to deepen US-Israel ties after softening Israeli push for visa-free travel

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WASHINGTON — Congress approved legislation Wednesday deepening U.S.-Israeli cooperation after softening a push to grant Israelis visa-free travel rights to the United States even as the Jewish state persists in blocking some Arab and Muslim Americans from its territory.

The bill, passed by a voice vote in the House, now goes to President Barack Obama for his signature. It cleared the Senate with unanimous support in September, but only after the elimination of language that critics saw as an endorsement of Israeli discrimination of some Americans. The bill now calls only for Israel's inclusion in the U.S. Visa Waiver Program when it meets the requirements, the most elementary of which is reciprocal treatment for Americans.

Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., who spearheaded the effort, hailed Congress' two houses for speaking "with one voice" to strengthen ties between America and its closest Middle East ally.

Beyond the visa provisions, the U.S.-Israel Strategic Partnership Act increases the value of emergency U.S. weaponry kept in Israel by $200 million, to a total of $1.8 billion. It promotes closer U.S.-Israeli links in energy, water, homeland security, alternative fuel technology and cybersecurity. It offers a verbal guarantee of Israel maintaining a qualitative military edge over its neighbors.

Approval comes after almost two years of legislative wrangling, largely pertaining to provisions supporting Israel's goal of joining a prestigious group of 38 mainly European and Asian nations whose citizens can visit the United States for up to 90 days with a visa, provided they register electronically before boarding a flight. Qualification is a top priority for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government and the pro-Israel lobby AIPAC, and many pro-Israel lawmakers in Congress back the effort.

But it stalled as the Obama administration and influential senators objected to significantly easing the entry criteria for Israel. The most sensitive debate concerned Israeli security rules barring many Palestinian-Americans and U.S. citizens of Arab origin or Muslim faith from entering Israel.

Israel has long insisted Americans on a Palestinian population registry aren't necessarily entitled to enter its borders as a condition of the Oslo Peace Accords. The Israeli government applies the rules to "anyone who has parents or grandparents who were born or lived in the West Bank or Gaza," even if they are U.S. citizens and don't claim Palestinian nationality, according to the State Department.

If they're allowed into Palestinian territories, they cannot arrive at Tel Aviv's international airport and must instead travel overland from Jordan or Egypt. Americans with political views Israel finds objectionable say they've suffered similar restrictions.

In the last year, however, signs of progress emerged.

Boxer and other advocates of the "strategic partnership" with Israel struck much of the visa-free language from their bill. The Obama administration formed a working group to help Israel move closer to qualification. And senior Israeli officials suggested they may allow Palestinian-Americans to begin entering the country through Tel Aviv's David Ben Gurion Airport in the future.

However, U.S. officials say they will only designate a country for visa-free travel if it establishes a proven record of full reciprocity for all U.S. citizens. Meeting that criterion, along with others, can take some countries years to achieve.

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