Biden administration expected to grant Israel entry into Visa Waiver Program

Michael Arria

Mondoweiss  /  September 26, 2023

Joe Biden: My commitment to Israel … is ironclad. I think without Israel, there’s not a Jew in the world that’s secure. I think Israel is essential.’

“Admitting Israel into the program after only a month-and-a-half-long trial after decades of discrimination, occupation, and apartheid is irresponsible,” AJP Action Advocacy Director Ayah Ziyadeh tells Mondoweiss.

Later this week, the Biden administration is expected to announce that Israel will be accepted into the U.S. Visa Waiver Program (VWP), allowing Israelis to travel to the United States without an entry visa.

On Monday, the State Department said it would not get into “the exact timing” of the announcement, but according to reporting from the Associated Press, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas will make an announcement on Thursday, and the change will go into effect in November.

Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen has already put out a statement on the move: “Israel joining the Visa Waiver Program is a diplomatic achievement and good news for all Israeli citizens.”

Israel has been lobbying the United States for entry into the program for two decades, but its inclusion often felt doubtful for a number of reasons.

First, the VWP is based on a principle of reciprocity. Nationals of VWP countries are required to have a visa rejection rate of 3% or less, but Israeli applications have historically been rejected at a much higher rate. Secondly, countries that are part of the VWP must also refrain from discriminating against U.S. nationals, but Israel has imposed many of the same draconian travel restrictions on Palestinian Americans that it does on other Palestinians.

Even the Trump administration expressed skepticism that Israel would ever meet the requirements needed to enter the program. “Specifically, the administration in Washington continues to be concerned about the unequal treatments given to US Muslims at entry points and checkpoints,” said a State Department spokesperson in 2017. “We regularly raise the issue of equal treatment of all US citizens at entry points to Israel with the authorities in Israel.”

However, Israel saw an opportunity arise after travel diminished due to COVID-19, and their rejection rate decreased. On July 20, the country launched a pilot program that allegedly allows Palestinian Americans through its borders with fewer restrictions.

However, many still exist. In a recent Twitter thread, author and Georgetown professor Josh Ruebner cites four of them: Palestinian Americans living in Gaza will still have to obtain a permit to leave, Palestinian Americans who live in the West Bank will need a permit to use Israel’s airport, Palestinian Americans can’t drive their cars through Israeli checkpoints, and Palestinian Americans can’t leave the West Bank if the Israeli government declares that it is locked down.

“A careful reading of this document from the State Department proves that Israel continues to treat Palestinian Americans as less than,” wrote Ruebner. “That means Israel is NOT eligible to join the Visa Waiver Program. Period.”

“This pilot program appears to be an effort by the Biden Administration to bring Israel into the Visa Waiver Program without requiring it to end its systematic profiling and discrimination against Palestinian Americans,” warned Foundation for Middle East Peace President Lara Friedman at the time. “This effort strips the term ‘reciprocity’ of all meaning, gives a U.S. kosher stamp to foreign governments engaging in blatant racism against Americans, and demonstrates yet again that the rule of U.S.-Israel relations – regardless of which party is in the White House, and even when talking about the welfare and rights of American citizens – is zero accountability.”

Earlier this month, 15 Democratic Senators, including Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and Senate’s Judiciary Committee head Dick Durbin, also expressed skepticism over the pilot program.

“Mr. Secretary, the State Department has documented the history of disparate treatment that U.S. citizen travelers to Israel have experienced based on their ethnicity, religion, and national origin,” read their letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken. “That is why it is absolutely critical that you be able to verify and certify Israel’s compliance with the reciprocity and equal treatment requirements prior to admission into the Visa Waiver Program – not at some point in time after the program has been initiated.”

Palestine advocates criticize move

The imminent announcement has been criticized by Palestine advocates and human rights groups.

“In the last two years, AJP Action and many other organizations have met with the Department of Homeland Security, in which they would continuously reaffirm how the requirements of the visa waiver program are strict and cannot be bent, confirming that Israel had yet to meet full reciprocity,” AJP Action Advocacy Director Ayah Ziyadeh told Mondoweiss. “Reciprocity is the cornerstone of entry into the VWP. Admitting Israel into the program after only a month-and-a-half-long trial after decades of discrimination, occupation, and apartheid is irresponsible. The trial itself proved that Israel has yet to meet reciprocity with its continued discrimination against Palestinian Americans. This is another reminder that the United States would rather continue to compromise our national security and quote-un-quote principles to please a government (Israel) that has shown time and time again that it does not respect the U.S. nor is it afraid to break international law.”

“If confirmed, this decision is horrible,” said ADC National Executive Director Abed Ayoub. “By allowing for the creation and recognition of different classes of U.S. citizens, our government has endorsed and embraced Israeli discrimination and apartheid. With this decision, the U.S. government will be sending a message that not all American passport holders are equal.”

“Israel’s admission into the VWP isn’t the end of the road. It’s now time to make sure the U.S. government is held to account for this serious violation of our rights and the integrity of the VWP,” said American Federation of Ramallah, Palestine (AFRP) president Hanna Hanania. “We will not accept anything less than full reciprocity and equal treatment for all Americans, whether they are Palestinian, Arab, or Muslim Americans.”

Victory for Netanyahu

Israel’s entry into the program secures a massive political victory for Netanyahu amid the ongoing protests targeting his right-wing government. The Biden administration has publicly criticized Israel over Netanyahu’s proposed judicial overhaul and its ongoing settlement expansion, but it’s taken no action to impede any Israel policies.

Last week, Biden and Netanyahu met for the first time since the Israeli Prime Minister took power last December. “Today, we’re going to discuss some of the hard issues. And that is upholding democratic values that lie at the heart of our partnership, including checks and balances in our systems, and preserving the path to a negotiated two-state solution, and ensuring that Iran never, never acquires a nuclear weapon,” Biden told reporters. “Because even where we have some differences. My commitment to Israel … is ironclad. I think without Israel, there’s not a Jew in the world that’s secure. I think Israel is essential.”

Two days after the meeting, Netanyahu addressed the U.N. General Assembly, where he condemned the Iranian government and touted another policy issue that the Biden administration has been working on: a normalization deal between Saudi Arabia and Israel. “There’s no question the Abraham Accords heralded the dawn of a new age of peace,” Netanyahu told attendees. “But I believe that we are at the cusp of an even more dramatic breakthrough, an historic peace between Israel and Saudi Arabia. Peace between Israel and Saudi Arabia will truly create a new Middle East.”

He then produced a map of the region with Palestine missing.

Michael Arria is the U.S. correspondent for Mondoweiss