Congresswoman Tlaib rebukes US decision to grant Israel entry to visa waiver program

Shaheryar Mirza

Middle East Eye  /  September 29, 2023

Rashida Tlaib says Israeli government has not and will not uphold principle of reciprocity.

Democratic Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib slammed the Biden administration’s decision to accept Israel into the US visa waiver program (VWP), saying it enables Israel’s “discriminatory practices”.

“The Biden Administration’s decision to admit Israel into the Visa Waiver Program explicitly condones and enables the Israeli government’s discriminatory practices towards Americans requesting entry, including hours of detainment and interrogation,” Tlaib said in a statement posted to her website on Thursday.

The State Department and Department of Homeland Security made the announcement on Wednesday morning, ahead of the 30 September deadline the US gave itself to make a decision on the matter.

Now becoming the 41st country to join the VWP, Israeli citizens will be allowed visa-free travel into the US for up to 90 days, and US citizens will be given the same privilege when travelling to Israel.

Israel’s entry into the VWP will go into effect on 30 November, according to the State Department.

Tlaib added that the decision to allow Israel into the program means “the US government is allowing a foreign government to discriminate against its own citizens based on protected class”.

Entry into the VWP for any country requires that both countries abide by the principle of reciprocity, which means that any US citizen be allowed freedom of movement – as Israel’s citizens enjoy in the US – and no discrimination during entry and exit protocols.

Reciprocity has been the main sticking point for critics of Israel’s acceptance. A US-based rights group filed a lawsuit seeking an injunction on Tuesday, arguing that Israel is not eligible for the program because it discriminates against Palestinian Americans.

Tlaib used her own and Congresswoman Ilhan Omar’s travel experience as an example of what she described as Israel’s “racist” practices towards Palestinian Americans. 

“The far-right Israeli government routinely discriminates against Americans seeking to enter the country, even denying myself and Congresswoman Omar entry in 2019. This decision enables further racist practices and violence towards Americans including the murder of Shireen Abu Akleh. The United States has yet to hold the Israeli government accountable.

“The Visa Waiver Program requires that all US citizens are treated equally. I have received consistent reports of discrimination of Americans attempting to enter Israel. No one should be discriminated against due to their national origin, ethnicity, or faith.”

Israel has long sought entry into the VWP, and in July, the US and Israel signed a “reciprocity agreement” to allow American citizens the ability to freely enter Israel.

Washington had announced it would be monitoring Israel over a trial period of six weeks and then would make a decision about whether or not to allow the country into the VWP by 30 September – a process many have said has been rushed to give Israel “unique treatment“.


Palestinian Americans from Gaza, as well as rights groups, feel little will change for them after the VWP goes into effect. 

According to the US embassy in Israel, those registered on the Palestinian population registry for Gaza have new procedures for short-term entry, exit and transit through Israel, effective the afternoon of 11 September. However, the embassy website shows a number of stipulations regarding entry procedures.

For example, a US citizen and Gaza resident who has spent more than 50 percent of the last five years in Gaza (as confirmed by the Israeli government) can apply for a permit to enter Israel through the Erez Crossing. If they are outside of Gaza at the time of applying, they can apply for entrance through any international port of entry.

But US citizens cannot use their US passports for transiting from Israel to Gaza.

Chris Habiby, national government affairs and advocacy director at the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, told Middle East Eye for a previous article that the process is starting to cater to Gaza residents to some degree, “But from what I can tell, it just looks like a continuation of the separate and unequal system that they’re setting up.”

Habiby added that the process for Americans from Gaza is overly complicated, and has created additional tiers of access in what was already a multi-tiered system for Palestinian Americans.

Earlier this month, more than a dozen senators raised these concerns with the Biden administration, sending a letter that warned against moving forward with Israel’s entry into the VWP.

“The contacts we have had from US citizens seeking to travel to Israel since the MOU went into effect, it is clear that Israel is not in compliance with this law as it relates to reciprocal treatment for all US citizens, and is not on track to come into compliance before the September 30, 2023 deadline,” the senators said in their letter.

This sentiment was echoed by Tlaib on Thursday. 

“The Israeli government has not and will not uphold reciprocity.”

Shaheryar Mirza is US Editor for Middle East Eye