As with the House version (H.R. 938 of 3/4/13), this bill would reaffirm and strengthen the relationship between Israel and the U.S. in a variety of ways.
Original provisions included, inter alia, admitting Israel into the visa waiver program (see H.R. 300 of 1/15/13 for more on the program); a non-binding provision urging new efforts on cybersecurity; the transfer of certain obsolete or surplus defense materials to Israel; a 1-year extension on Israeli access to the U.S. war reserves stockpiled in Israel, as well as an expansion of those stockpiles. The bill designates Israel as a ‘major strategic partner’ of the U.S., a title left undefined, and urges the president to provide assistance for the enhancement of U.S.-Israel cooperative missile defense programs. It also includes new authorizations for U.S.-Israel cooperation in a variety of fields, including energy, water, homeland security, and renewable energy. Furthermore, the bill would extend federal grants to cooperative efforts on renewable energy.
Despite support from pro-Israel groups, no significant action was taken on the bill for almost a year after it was introduced and referred to the Senate Foreign Relations Comm. Then, in early 2014, Boxer made a deal with other key senators, conceding on the most controversial section of the bill in exchange for facilitating its advancement in committee. Reportedly, Boxer agreed to amend her version to align the Visa Waiver Program language with the House version. Specifically, the new language would authorize, but not require, Israel to be admitted to the program with a visa refusal rate as high as 10% so long as it complied with all other provisions. (Israel’s visa refusal rate at the time was 9.7% and the program’s other members are not allowed a rate above 3%.) Additionally, Boxer’s amendment would have removed the controversial language that permitted Israel to be exempt from the program’s reciprocity requirement on the grounds that the exemption was required to uphold Israel’s security.
Following the deal, the bill was set to pass in a Foreign Relations Comm. meeting scheduled for 5/20/14—after which, passage in the full Senate was all but assured considering the bill’s 63 cosponsors. However, the committee’s Democratic chair, Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ), cancelled the meeting when it became clear that his Republican colleague, Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN), intended to propose another amendment designed to give Congress increased oversight of the P5+1 negotiations with Iran. Specifically, Corker’s amendment would have given Congress the right to hold a ‘vote of disapproval’ on any deal with Iran and to schedule hearings to consider its impact. Boxer reportedly supported Menendez’s decision to pull the bill from consideration.
By introducing this key Republican demand, Corker sparked a heated debate over a bill that had until then commanded majority bipartisan support. AIPAC strongly supported the Corker amendment and other similar initiatives aimed at expanding congressional oversight of the Iran deal. The White House opposed Corker’s amendment because of fears it would derail the ongoing negotiations. Other Democratic critics of the amendment decried it for being irrelevant to a bill on U.S.-Israel relations and lobbied for it to be proposed as an independent measure instead.
Two days after pulling the bill, Menendez was presented the Defender of Zion award by the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA). At the award ceremony, ZOA’s president, Mort Klein, said, ‘If [Menendez] politically thought the bill won’t [sic] have a chance with this amendment then he did the right thing even though, of course, we regretted that he had to do it,’ adding, ‘[Menendez has] given the most extraordinary speeches on the Senate floor. . . . Speeches that sound like I would [sic] have written them.’
When Rep. Trent Franks (R-AZ) proposed an amendment identical to Corker’s to be attached to the House NDAA (H.R. 4435 of 4/9/14), th