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U.S. may allow Israelis to visit without visas

WASHINGTON -- Legislation that would let Israelis visit the United States without visas but not demand full reciprocal treatment for all Americans wishing to travel to the Jewish state could put Congress and the Obama administration on a collision course in coming weeks.

Israel's entry into the 37-nation U.S. Visa Waiver Program is the most controversial element in a pair of broader U.S.-Israel bills dealing with everything from improving cybersecurity to enhancing economic cooperation. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen is hoping to get the House Foreign Affairs Committee's approval before Congress' August recess. Sen. Barbara Boxer's version is picking up support in the Senate.

Both would create a new category of U.S. ally, "major strategic partner," designating only Israel for the distinction. And they would call for the inclusion of Israel on a list of countries whose citizens can visit the United States for up to 90 days without a visa if they register electronically before boarding a flight.

The administration and some lawmakers are concerned the legislation doesn't do enough to eliminate Israeli discrimination against Palestinians and Arab-Americans seeking to enter its borders. They also say Israel still fails to meet other legal requirements for the program.

The Senate bill, for example, would demand only that the Israeli government make "every reasonable effort, without jeopardizing the security of the state of Israel, to ensure that reciprocal travel privileges are extended to all United States citizens." And it would grant Israel an exemption from a waiver program entry requirement that it first reach a 97 percent approval rate for its applicants seeking U.S. visas.

The House's bill has clear bipartisan backing, with more than 300 co-sponsors. The Senate effort now has 45 co-sponsors, bringing it close to a majority. It is likely to be considered by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in September.

Some critics are sensitive about expressing their reservations in public, wishing to avoid getting in a public argument with a close ally, with the bills' supporters or with the powerful pro-Israel lobby AIPAC, which is pushing for the legislation's passage.

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