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Publish Date: 
Friday, December 5, 2014

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.