US admits Israel into visa waiver program

September 28, 2023 3:36 pm

[Source: Reuters]

The U.S. government announced it is admitting Israel into a program that will allow visa-free entry by Israeli citizens starting Nov. 30.

Admission to the U.S. Visa Waiver Program (VWP), which Israel’s Foreign Ministry said was expected, is a win for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a time when relations between his religious-nationalist government and Washington have been strained over its judiciary overhaul plan and policies toward Palestinians.

Some Palestinians have protested against Israel’s entry into the program, saying Israel for decades has discriminated against Arab Americans and harassed them at its borders. Four Democratic U.S. senators including Chris Van Hollen said Wednesday Israel has failed to meet requirements to treat all American travelers equally.

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U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said the announcement further “strengthens the security, economic and people-to-people ties between the United States and Israel.”

Palestinian-Americans living in the West Bank or living in the United States now can enter Israel visa free, and fly in and out of Ben Gurion airport, reducing barriers to travel for these Americans, the U.S. said.

Netanyahu praised the decision as a “significant and joyous moment for all Israeli citizens.”

For admission to the program allowing visitors to stay up to 90 days without a visa, Washington requires countries to meet requirements on issues such as counterterrorism, law enforcement, immigration enforcement, document security, and border management. They also must treat all U.S. travelers equally, so Israel must allow free passage for Palestinian Americans at Ben Gurion airport.

The Palestinian Foreign Ministry urged the United States to guarantee equal treatment for Palestinians.

“At a time when the American administration has repeatedly said that its goal is to provide the same opportunities for freedom, equality, prosperity, and security for both Palestinians and Israelis, we expect this administration to work to implement what it says,” the ministry said in a statement.

In a pilot period since July 20, Israel has eased access for Palestinian Americans through its borders and the Israeli-occupied West Bank. According to Israel’s Interior Ministry, more than 130,000 Americans entered Israel since the pilot began, including 6,070 Palestinian Americans.

Between 45,000 and 60,000 Palestinian Americans live in the West Bank, a U.S. official estimated. An Israeli official put the figure lower, at 15,000 to 20,000.

There were previously 40 countries in the VWP, with nations added infrequently. Croatia was the most recent in 2021.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the announcement “will enhance freedom of movement for U.S. citizens, including those living in the Palestinian Territories or traveling to and from them.”

On Tuesday, the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee filed suit seeking to block Israel’s entry to the program. A U.S. judge in Detroit denied an emergency motion, saying the Homeland Security Department had not received proper notice of the lawsuit.