by Mitchell Plitnick
In an article published in The Hill, Mike Coogan reports that some of the key legislation that emerged from the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s (AIPAC) 2013 annual policy conference is running into significant difficulties in Congress. The bills, which Lara Friedman only half-jokingly called the “Israel Best Ally With Benefits” bills, have not gained close to the overwhelming support that AIPAC has come to expect from Congress.
Indeed, more than five weeks after the United States-Israel Strategic Partnership Act of 2013 was introduced in the Senate, it has gathered only 18 co-sponsors. That’s a shockingly low total for a focal point of AIPAC lobbying. It has done better in the House of Representatives, with 171 co-sponsors, but given the more hawkish nature of the House, even that’s not a success by AIPAC’s standards.
While one shouldn’t make too much of this, it certainly seems like AIPAC reached a little too far with this bill. The main issue is a portion of the bill which, in the Senate version, would grant a US visa exemption for Israeli citizens without requiring a reciprocal arrangement from Israel. The US has visa exemption arrangements with 37 other countries, but all of them reciprocate.
Ron Kampeas quotes a staffer from a leading pro-Israel lawmaker in the US House of Representatives as saying that “It’s stunning that you would give a green light to another country to violate the civil liberties of Americans traveling abroad.”
The US concern is particularly profound after a Palestinian-American, who taught English at the Friends’ School in Ramallah, was barred by Israel in January from returning to her West Bank job after a trip to Jordan, despite having a visa that allowed her to leave and re-enter Israeli-controlled territory. Israel, undoubtedly, is concerned that a reciprocal agreement would compromise its ability to bar not only Palestinian-Americans, but also pro-Palestinian activists, from entering the country.
The House version of the bill does not exempt Israel from reciprocity, but merely calls on the Secretary of State to report to Congress on the extent of Israel’s compliance with the reciprocity requirement and “…what additional steps, if any, are required in order for Israel to qualify for inclusion in such program.” That may be one reason the House bill has done better.
The bill includes other troublesome aspects. Friedman points out that the Senate bill includes shockingly weak language in support of a two-state solution: “…language that disconnects the issue from U.S. national security interests and in doing so creates a formulation that inconsistent with the actual foreign policy of the Obama Administration or ANY previous administration.”
Even so, it remains surprising that a bill that emerged as a focal point from an AIPAC policy conference would have this much trouble. Coogan thinks this is a sign that AIPAC’s grip on Congress might be weakening.
It certainly adds to a sense that AIPAC might have reached a tipping point. Equally telling is what Coogan says about how AIPAC brought this bill to the Hill: “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.”
I haven’t been able to locate those “numerous public reports,” but my own sense from talking to people on Capitol Hill and other informed colleagues is that there is indeed some tension there. That’s on top of congressional bristling at AIPAC’s efforts to exempt aid to Israel from the sequestration cuts. Dylan Williams of J Street told The Forward that the possibility that AIPAC might try to lobby for exempting aid to Israel from the sequester “…seems a little tone deaf,” and that some Hill staffers were “surprised that some groups — that people from AIPAC — were asking for this.”
Does all this mean AIPAC is losing its grip? Probably not, but as members of Congress grow less enthusiastic about complying with AIPAC’s demands, the possibility that more politicians will test the widely-held but unproven maxim that opposing AIPAC is electoral suicide arises. That could make things very interesting.