Biden rushes Israel into visa waiver program 

Maureen Clare Murphy

The Electronic Intifada  /  September 27, 2023

The Biden administration in Washington has upgraded relations with Israel by admitting it into the US visa waiver program, despite concerns over its discriminatory treatment of Palestinians with US citizenship and other American travelers.

The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee is suing the federal government over the Israeli designation, which was also opposed by several Democratic senators, including reliable pro-Israel stalwarts.

The inclusion of Israel in the US visa waiver program will allow Israelis to travel to the US for tourism or business for up to 90 days without going through the burdensome process of applying for a visa.

Alejandro Mayorkas, the US Homeland Security secretary, said that the designation “will enhance our two countries’ collaboration on counterterrorism, law enforcement, and our other common priorities.”

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that “this important achievement represents a critical step forward in our strategic partnership that will enhance freedom of movement for US citizens.”

Joining the secretaries in their erasure of Palestinians was Stephanie Hallett, the temporary head of diplomatic mission at the US embassy in Jerusalem. She said “we are proud of this joint success, bringing the American and Israeli people even closer together.”

Israel had long sought inclusion in the visa waiver program.

Tom Nides, the Biden administration’s ambassador to Israel until he left his post in July this year, “was seen as the driving force behind Israel’s admission into the program,” as The Times of Israel reported on Wednesday.

The publication added that Israel “consistently fell short of various stipulations formulated by Washington, until a renewed push to negotiate the necessary reforms was kicked off with Nides’s arrival in Jerusalem.”

Nides, a former Morgan Stanley executive, will soon be beginning his new position as vice chairman of the scandal-ridden Wells Fargo bank.

Discriminatory treatment

Critics of Israel’s inclusion in the visa waiver program say that it endorses Israel’s discriminatory treatment of Palestinians with US citizenship while bolstering its far-right government.

The Biden administration knew that the move would be seen as a major diplomatic victory for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Meanwhile, Washington is pushing for normalized relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia – an even bigger prize for Netanyahu.

The inclusion of Israel in the program may even be a carrot for Netanyahu as the US seeks a deal with Saudi Arabia, effectively bartering American citizens’ rights.

In any case, the Biden administration is rewarding Netanyahu for seemingly very little in return. This is despite massive domestic protests against his ruling coalition’s efforts to curtail the power of the judiciary, as well as rampant settlement building in the West Bank in violation of both international law and US policy.

The Biden administration touts Israel’s inclusion into the visa waiver program as a win for Palestinian Americans, who have long faced discriminatory and humiliating treatment at points of entry controlled by Israel.

State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller insisted during a press briefing on Wednesday that the move will promote the freedom of movement of Palestinians with US citizenship, including those living in the West Bank.

Israel eased travel restrictions on Palestinian Americans during a two-month trial period that a coalition of civil society groups said on Wednesday “provided no real opportunity for assessment.”

Abed Ayoub, the executive director of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, has likewise said that Israel temporarily allowing entry to boosted numbers of Palestinian Americans falls far short of guaranteeing people their full rights.

Miller claimed that “tens of thousands” of Palestinian Americans on the West Bank and Gaza population registries entered Israel during the trial period.

Miller was challenged by journalists who questioned whether the figures offered by the State Department held any meaning, given that they didn’t have any figures for the entry of Palestinian Americans before the trial period.

An Israeli government spokesperson gave a much lower figure, telling the publication Al-Monitor that just over 6,000 Palestinian Americans entered Israel since July.

Tens of thousands of Palestinians with US citizenship are believed to reside in the West Bank, which like the Gaza Strip has been under Israeli military occupation since 1967.

Most of the millions of Palestinians living in the occupied territories are stateless, as are millions of Palestinians living outside their homeland, who are denied their right of return. Only the relatively privileged among them able to visit as tourists.

As Sari Bashi, a program director at Human Rights Watch, explains, the eased restrictions on Palestinians with US citizenship give “a tiny number of Palestinians a small fraction of their right to freedom of movement.”

But even that falls short of meeting the visa waiver program’s reciprocity requirement.

Under a new Israeli entry procedure, US citizens listed on Gaza’s population registry who live in the territory must apply to the Israeli military for a permit to enter Israel – an apparent exception to the requirement that reciprocal privileges be applied to all US citizens regardless of national origin, religion or ethnicity.

Palestinians with US citizenship on the Gaza population registry who live in the coastal enclave must apply for permission to enter Israel if they are outside the territory.

The vast majority of Palestinians living in Gaza are refugees from lands in Israel, which bans them from exercising their right to return as enshrined in international law because they are not Jewish.

Palestinians with US citizenship on the Gaza population registry whose center of life is outside the territory may use their US passports to enter Israel and the West Bank but not to transit to Gaza by way of Israel.

Miller, the State Department spokesperson, insisted that Israel meets the visa waiver requirements despite these exceptions to reciprocal treatment.

He justified the restrictions on security grounds, saying that “Gaza is controlled by a foreign terrorist organization … we would expect there to be different procedures.”

AP reporter Matt Lee retorted that the policy “is discriminatory whether it is based on sound national security strategy or not.”

“It’s not reciprocity,” he said.

The US designated Hamas, the Palestinian faction that administers Gaza’s internal affairs, as a foreign terrorist organization in 1997. Hamas is one of several Palestinian factions designated as such after rejecting the Oslo accords signed by Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization following a bilateral process led by Washington.

Biden’s State Department removed Kahane Chai (Kach) from its list of foreign terrorist organizations in 2022 on the dubious basis that the group is inactive.

Kahane Chai was founded by Meir Kahane, an American-born settler and rabbi who “led the most racist and murderous Jewish political movement of the last half century,” according to David Sheen, an expert on Israel’s far-right.

A close associate of Kahane is suspected in the 1985 murder of a Palestinian American civil rights leader.

Far from being inactive, Kahane’s followers and ideological torchbearers currently hold senior ministerial portfolios in the Israeli government.

According to Sheen, the removal of Kahane Chai from the State Department’s list of foreign terrorist organizations “sent a clear signal to Netanyahu that US President Joe Biden did not object to his including the Kahanists in any future government.”

US citizens with family connections in Gaza are denied reciprocal treatment but Israeli settlers including Kahane’s followers in the West Bank enjoy freedom of movement denied to Palestinians living in the same territory, including those with American citizenship.

The UN monitoring group OCHA said last month that there are currently around 650 obstacles impeding Palestinians’ freedom of movement throughout the West Bank – an increase of nearly 10 percent over the number of movement restrictions documented in 2020.

Under the Israel visa waiver arrangement, Palestinians with US citizenship living in the West Bank must apply through the Israeli military for a permit to travel via Ben Gurion Airport near Tel Aviv. Americans living in West Bank settlements face no such restriction on their movement.

Entrenching and extending apartheid

Major civil rights groups in the US say that inclusion in the visa waiver program serves to entrench Israel’s two-tiered, apartheid treatment of Palestinians in their homeland and extend it to US citizens.

The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee is suing the Departments of Homeland Security and State over the inclusion of Israel into the program, saying that it fails “to meet all of the legal requirements for admission.”

The civil rights group said on Wednesday that the inclusion of Israel “not only undermines our rights but also imports Israel’s discriminatory practices into an American program.”

The ADC added that the Department of Homeland Security “is not following the law by redefining the meaning of reciprocity, a central tenet of the [Visa Waiver Program] which requires that participating countries treat all American citizens equally.”

The group said that the inclusion of Israel amounts to the US government endorsing an “apartheid, separate and unequal system enforced by Israel over Palestinians, one that is applied to Americans as well.”

The Arab American Institute likewise condemned the “extraordinary move positioning politics over US law.”

The civil rights group added that by entering “into an agreement with a foreign government that regularly discriminates against Arab Americans, particularly Palestinian Americans,” the Biden administration is “thereby denying a group of American citizens the equal protection of the law.”

The AAI said the Biden administration admitted Israel into the visa waiver program “with full knowledge that reciprocity will not be conceivable for up to seven months after admittance … with no guarantee that discriminatory treatment would cease after its implementation.”

“Until then, US citizens residing in the West Bank will be placed in a second tier – a clear violation of the reciprocity requirement.”

Maureen Clare Murphy is senior editor of The Electronic Intifada