July 21, 2024
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Menendez Pulls U.S./Israel Cooperation Bill

Washington, DC—Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Robert Menendez (D-New Jersey) has pulled a bi-partisan bill on American/Israel cooperation that he has worked on for more than a year. After months of cooperation on the popular strategic partnership bill, politics halted progress on legislation that would strengthen ties between Israel and the United States.

The bill, called the U.S.-Israel Strategic Partnership Act, would strengthen ties between the two countries in military, trade, intelligence, and energy. But an amendment from the committee’s top Republican, Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., gave Menendez pause. Corker’s amendment would force the White House to present any nuclear deal with Iran to Congress within three days of its signature, a situation the White House is trying to avoid. Congress could hold a “vote of disapproval” and conduct hearings on the nuclear deal, but its opinion would carry no legally binding weight.

At a hearing on Tuesday, Menendez said the amendment came as a surprise to him—and that he feared it would detract from a more significant vote to come, on whether or not to abide by a deal brokered in Vienna by the Obama administration. Menendez, author of a sanctions bill that would have triggered new penalties against Iran should negotiations fail, was blindsided by the amendment, sources told The Jerusalem Post.

Menendez said such a vote would be “very significant” and would reflect the approval, or disapproval, of the legislature. Since Congress is responsible for legislating nuclear-related sanctions against Iran, if a deal is reached, Congress will have to undo that infrastructure. But Congress will probably not have veto power. While the legislature has the power to ratify treaties, the results of negotiations will probably be called something other than a “treaty.”

A tougher version of the Corker amendment, was attached to a defense bill in December. It died due to pressure from the White House. In February, Senate Republicans tried again, by tacking it to the Veteran’s Benefits bill.

Menendez, no friend of Iran, shocked Capitol Hill when he pulled the bill. Corker’s amendment, introduced last week, comes 23 weeks before the midterm elections. “You are, unfortunately, seeing a politicization of the bill,” a Senate aide said, as quoted by the Jerusalem Post. “We’re not even talking about the bill anymore.”

“Should President Obama reach a deal with Iran and five other world powers to restrain the country’s nuclear program, the Corker measure would have forced the president to submit the full plan to Congress within three days,” reported The Cable. “The amendment would then give Congress the right to hold a ‘vote of disapproval’ on the final deal and make way for hearings on the matter. Notably, the legislation would not give Congress the power to block the deal, only to express its will on the issue.”

Such a vote would have likely divided Democrats, forcing many of them to choose between standing behind the White House in a midterm election season, and standing up for their beliefs regarding the Iran deal—and they are skeptical about any deal, considering Iran statements.

An unidentified Senate aide blamed Corker. “It is deeply disappointing that a bipartisan bill cosponsored by over 60 senators sending a strong message extending far beyond the United States … is being politicized when it should be passed,” said the aide. “This is the right bill for the right time as the United States and Israel continue to make advances in technology, homeland security, agriculture, and other areas. It is not the appropriate vehicle to legislate on Iran.” He also expressed frustration that the amendment was introduced just days before the markup of the bill, which had been in the works for more than a year.

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.

The Iran language “had not come up in months of drafting,” one senior staff member said. “Everyone was working in partnership on the contents of the bill itself. And in the eleventh hour, there was this amendment.”

Before the amendment was introduced, the bill had garnered 61 co-sponsors in the 100-member Senate. The “oversight” bill on Iran was already being drafted as a separate enterprise.

Until this week, the press focused almost exclusively the provisions that would allow Israel to join the Visa Waiver Program. Israel’s reluctance to allow simple entry to Israel for Americans of Palestinian origin and the rejections of Israeli visa applications, which are double the maximum proscribed by law. There is conjecture that this is one of the reasons for recent “leaks” about Israelis spying on America, which has caused more dissention between the U.S. and Israel. Senator Barbara Boxer was planning to withdraw that aspect of the bill, avoiding the obstacles to its implementation.

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 temporary and that there will be a compromise bill. They view the standoff as a “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.”

They also discussed the coming mid-term elections 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.”

When asked directly about the Corker amendment, a senior U.S. administration official declined to oppose or support it. “Preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon has been a top priority for the administration, toward which we have worked diligently with Congress and our international partners,” said the official. “The administration is fully committed to continuing to brief and consult closely with Congress so that the United States government speaks with one voice and does not undermine our negotiators’ efforts to achieve a strong deal that will protect our interests and those of our partners and the international community.” The official sent a follow up e-mail saying the administration does officially oppose the Corker amendment.

In a statement Monday evening, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee supported Corker’s amendment. “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 and its implementation,” an AIPAC official said.

From Combined Sources

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