Middle East Eye / September 27, 2023
Announcement leads to outrage and skepticism from Palestinian Americans, rights groups and US lawmakers.
The Biden administration has announced that the US has accepted Israel into its visa waiver program (VWP), despite concerns made by rights groups, Palestinian Americans, and lawmakers that Israel is discriminating against different groups of Americans travelling to the country.
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.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that Israel’s entry into the coveted program “represents a critical step forward in our strategic partnership with Israel”.
Palestinian Americans and other US citizens immediately responded to the announcement with outrage, saying that the country has not stopped its discrimination of Palestinians at points of entry.
“Today, the Biden administration granted Israel’s most right-wing government admission into a visa waiver program that appears to discriminate against US citizens based on their identity and background,” Jehad Abusalim, executive director of the Washington-based Jerusalem Fund, said on X.
Beth Miller, the political director for Jewish Voice for Peace Action, said that the decision endorses “the systematic discrimination of US citizens of Palestinian, Arab, and Muslim descent.
It also “handed a massive victory to the most extremist and racist government in Israeli history”, Miller added.
The US and Israel signed a “reciprocity agreement” in July, which kicked off a trial period for the VWP, with the Biden administration saying it would monitor the entry of Americans into Israel over a six-week period.
In making its announcement on Wednesday, the State Department said that Israel had updated its entry policies and maintained compliance with them as it allowed Palestinian Americans into the country without a visa.
“This important achievement will enhance freedom of movement for US citizens, including those living in the Palestinian Territories or travelling to and from them,” Blinken said.
Yumna Patel, the Palestine news director at the outlet Mondoweiss, went on social media to convey her outrage over the news, which she received while in a waiting room trying to enter Israel.
“I found out about this news as I, an American citizen, sit in a waiting room at the Israeli border after being interrogated on my pregnancy status, and harassed & threatened after I complained about the prying questions. Happy that my govt is celebrating its ‘common priorities’,” Patel said on X.
Lawsuit over Israel’s acceptance into VWP
The announcement was also met with skepticism from a number of US lawmakers. Senators Chris Van Hollen, Brian Schatz, Jeff Merkley, and Peter Welch issued a statement on Wednesday saying that the Biden administration’s decision is in violation of the central tenet of the VWP – the reciprocity between Israel and the US in how they treat each other’s citizens.
“Adherence to this important American tenet of reciprocity and equal treatment of all US citizens is critical to the integrity of the Visa Waiver Program, and we are deeply concerned with the Administration’s decision to move forward in violation of that principle,” the senators said.
“We will carefully monitor the situation to determine whether Americans continue to face discrimination based on their ethnicity, national origin, or religion.”
Van Hollen spearheaded a letter earlier this month signaling that Israel was not in compliance with the VWP and that it should not be allowed into the program as it currently stands.
On Tuesday, the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) filed a lawsuit against the State Department and Department of Homeland Security, seeking an injunction that would block Israel’s entry into the VWP.
“This is all so unnecessary, all the US government had to do was maintain the standard it has with every other country in the visa waiver program,” Huwaida Arraf, a lawyer representing the ADC, told Middle East Eye earlier.
“This lawsuit could have been avoided, but the DHS and the State Department resurrected the debunked notion that separate is somehow equal. As these plaintiffs show, that notion is a farce.”
Biden administration confirms it will let Israelis travel visa-free to US
Al-Jazeera / September 27, 2023
Washington says Israel’s admission to Visa Waiver Program recognizes ‘shared security interests, close cooperation’.
US President Joe Biden’s administration has confirmed it will allow Israelis to travel visa-free to the United States, despite condemnation and concerns over Israel’s treatment of Palestinian and Arab-American travelers.
In a statement on Wednesday, the US Department of Homeland Security said Israel had been designated for the Visa Waiver Program (VWP) and that Israeli nationals will be able to travel to the US without a visa by November 30.
“The designation of Israel into the Visa Waiver Program is an important recognition of our shared security interests and the close cooperation between our two countries,” Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said.
“This designation, which represents over a decade of work and coordination between the United States and Israel, will enhance our two nations’ collaboration on counterterrorism, law enforcement, and our other common priorities.”
Michael Herzog, Israel’s ambassador to the US, also lauded the decision on Wednesday as a “significant milestone” in the relationship between the two countries.
“Our people-to-people ties, which are the backbone of our special relationship, will only grow stronger,” Herzog wrote in a social media post.
The move follows a high-profile meeting last week between Biden and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly, where the two leaders pledged continued cooperation.
But the prospect of Israel’s entry into the VWP has faced widespread condemnation from Arab-American civil rights advocates.
That is because one of the main elements of the program is what is known as “reciprocity”; countries in the VWP must allow visa-free travel for American citizens in exchange for a similar easing of visa requirements for their own nationals travelling to the US.
However, scores of US and other foreign nationals of Palestinian and other Arab descent are routinely turned away by Israeli authorities, who control all access to the occupied Palestinian territories.
For example, Israel in 2019 blocked US Congresswomen Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib from visiting the country and the occupied Palestinian territories over “their boycott activities against Israel”.
In Wednesday’s statement, the Biden administration said Israel “made updates to its entry policies to meet the VWP requirement to extend reciprocal privileges to all US citizens without regard to national origin, religion, or ethnicity”.
“This important achievement will enhance freedom of movement for U.S. citizens, including those living in the Palestinian Territories or traveling to and from them,” said US Secretary of State Antony Blinken.
Still, human rights advocates have cast doubt on whether Israel would live up to its commitments.
On Tuesday, the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) said it had filed a lawsuit against Israel’s VWP designation. “Credible reports and ADC’s own investigations have shown that Israel failed to meet all of the legal requirements for admission,” the group said.
Abed Ayoub, the ADC’s executive director, told Al-Jazeera earlier this week that by letting Israel into the program, the Biden administration “has endorsed and embraced Israeli discrimination and apartheid”.
“With this decision, the US government will be sending a message that not all American passport holders are equal,” Ayoub said.
Leading rights groups and international experts have accused Israel of maintaining a system of apartheid against Palestinians.
Yet despite widespread criticism of the Israeli government’s human rights record, Biden has said his support for the country is unwavering. Israel receives at least $3.8bn in US military aid annually.
“You’ve heard me say many times: Were there no Israel, we’d have to invent one, and I mean it,” the US president told Netanyahu in New York on September 20.
U.S. allows Israelis visa-free entry as Israel opens travel to Palestinian Americans
NPR (National Public Radio) / September 27, 2023
TEL AVIV, Israel — The U.S. said Wednesday it will allow Israeli tourists and businesspeople to enter the country without visas, an agreement that requires Israel to end bans and restrictions on the entry of Palestinian Americans and other Arab Americans.
Starting Nov. 30, Israelis will be able to travel to the U.S. for trips of up to 90 days without needing to wait months for a visa. Forty other countries are already granted the same privilege.
The U.S.-Israel deal represents a significant change in Israel’s longstanding security paradigm of profiling and restricting the entry of Palestinian, Arab and Muslim visitors. Those measures were put in place because of airline hijackings 50 years ago, ongoing hostilities against Israel in the region and Israeli efforts to prevent an influx of Palestinians to the Jewish state.
The new agreement, negotiated over the last year and a half, overcame old fears in the U.S. that visa-free travel could help Israelis spy on U.S. soil.
It also resolved more recent concerns, like enforcing stricter rules on granting Israeli passports to new immigrants — effectively allowing the visa-waiver program to prevent an influx of Russians into the U.S. who gained Israeli citizenship since the war in Ukraine — and U.S. demands that Israel upgrade to post-Sept. 11 standards of airline security, U.S. officials say.
New freedom of movement for tens of thousands of Palestinian Americans
Under the deal, Israel has agreed to treat U.S. citizens “without regard to national origin, religion, or ethnicity,” the Department of Homeland Security said in a statement.
Israel already phased in the measures this summer, allowing entry to Americans with origins or dual citizenship in countries like Iran, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. Palestinian Americans with residency status in the occupied West Bank and the Gaza Strip may now access Israel’s international airport, and U.S. officials say tens of thousands have visited Israel as a result.
“I drove through every single checkpoint between the West Bank and Israel I could,” says Mohammed Manasrah, a Palestinian American. “Like, I would literally drive through the checkpoint, make a U-turn and come back. And it just feels like every time I go through a checkpoint, it’s like I won.”
Four Democratic senators said Wednesday they oppose Israel’s admission into the visa-waiver program, arguing Israel still has not addressed all unequal treatment against Palestinian Americans. An Arab American rights group is seeking an injunction against Israel entering the program.
U.S. officials say they are working with Israel to solve remaining inequities, like restrictions at select border crossings on Palestinian Americans driving from the West Bank into Israel, and that Israel could be suspended from the visa-waiver program if it does not comply with its commitments.
U.S. concerns over Israeli security and espionage
The deal also addresses holes in Israel’s border security policies, a surprising revelation given Israel’s tough security stance.
Under the deal, Israel agreed to adopt U.S. and international airline passenger screening protocols established after the Sept. 11 attacks. Israel had previously relied on other security methods, including interrogations and profiling based on passenger risk.
Israel also accepted U.S. requests to place restrictions on granting passports to new immigrants, due to concerns that the U.S. would receive an influx of Russians who gained expedited Israeli citizenship since Russia’s war in Ukraine began last year.
In 2014, when Israel lobbied to join the visa-waiver program, U.S. intelligence officials reportedly warned lawmakers it would help Israeli spies conduct espionage on U.S. soil. A U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity in a briefing to reporters ahead of Wednesday’s announcement, dismissed that concern now.
“The U.S. intelligence community and law enforcement routinely evaluate potential counterintelligence risks from a host of countries. This is in the case of the visa waiver program,” the official said. “The arrangements under the visa-waiver program do not represent any insurmountable obstacle to the work we do to protect the homeland from intelligence collection.”
The politics behind the deal
Israelis have sought to be in the so-called visa-waiver program for decades, but Israel never qualified. Besides treatment of Arab Americans and espionage concerns, Israelis had a high visa rejection rate because of U.S. concerns that Israelis, like young veterans fresh out of the army, would overstay their visas.
Two years ago, there was an opening. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was ousted in an election, and after years of his sour relations with Democrats, a new, moderate Israeli governing coalition was formed that the Biden administration wanted to support, and the U.S. began working on the visa-free program for Israel.
Netanyahu was accused of holding up the process in parliament to prevent his opponents from scoring the political win. After Netanyahu returned to office, his government advanced the lifting of restrictions on Arab American travelers.
“If I had to guess, the security establishment would have preferred to keep things as they are. But the prime minister felt it’s important,” says Ehud Eiran, a former Israeli adviser to a previous prime minister. “To be cynical, I think he’s in a very difficult time. And if a politician can tell Israelis, you can enter the U.S. without a visa — big political win.”
As Netanyahu faces domestic protests and U.S. opposition for his overhaul of Israel’s judiciary, he is promoting the mega-deal President Biden is seeking to broker for diplomatic relations between Israel and regional heavyweight Saudi Arabia.
Such a deal, the Biden administration says, will require Israel to agree to much larger concessions to the Palestinians than travel privileges for Palestinian Americans.
Daniel Estrin – International correspondent, Jerusalem