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The Biden administration announced Wednesday that it will allow Israeli travelers to come to the United States without a visa, a coveted status that was given in exchange for the Israeli government dropping long-standing travel restrictions on Palestinian Americans and other Americans of Arab and Muslim descent.
Israel’s entry into the Visa Waiver Program has been a top priority for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his predecessor, Naftali Bennett. The country had never been granted access because it refused entry to many Palestinian Americans at Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion Airport, forcing them to fly to Jordan and then travel overland into the West Bank.
The Biden administration had sought to end that treatment, and also viewed an agreement on visas as a test case for a much bigger effort to broker a deal between Saudi Arabia and Israel that could be a landmark moment in the geopolitics of the Middle East. In July, Israel agreed to open Ben Gurion Airport to all Americans regardless of their origin in a bid to prove it is committed to its side of the deal.
U.S.-Israel visa deal could give some Palestinians new freedom of movement
Since then, tens of thousands of Palestinian Americans have flown to Israel successfully, U.S. officials say, granted visas and access to move around Israeli territory in a way that they haven’t been able to do for decades.
“Israel’s entry into the Visa Waiver Program represents a critical step forward in our strategic partnership with Israel that will further strengthen long-standing people-to-people engagement, economic cooperation, and security coordination between our two countries,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement. “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.”
Administration officials say they will continue to monitor Israeli compliance with the requirements of the program and that they can revoke it at any time if they judge Israel not to be upholding its side of the bargain. They say that Israeli citizens will be able to take advantage of the visa-free program by Nov. 30.
Israeli policy “often subjected U.S. citizens of Palestinian or Arab heritage or Muslim faith to significant difficulties and unequal treatment,” a U.S. official told reporters, speaking under ground rules of anonymity to discuss the new policy before its official announcement. “Since July 20, when Israel initially issued its updated travel guidance, over 100,000 U.S. citizens, including tens of thousands of Palestinian Americans, have successfully entered Israel visa-free.”
The announcement was welcomed by the Israeli ambassador to the United States, Michael Herzog, who called it “significant milestone.”
In a post on X, formerly known as Twitter, he added that “our people-to-people ties, which are the backbone of our special relationship, will only grow stronger.”
The deal has come under criticism from some inside Biden’s own Democratic Party, with 15 senators — including Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin (Ill.) — signing a letter to Blinken earlier this month urging a delay to the waiver until next year. They expressed concern that, in their view, Israel had not fully committed to equal treatment to all U.S. citizens, including Palestinian Americans registered in the Gaza Strip.
The Biden administration also hopes to obtain better treatment for Palestinians as part of ongoing three-country negotiations between Washington, Jerusalem and Riyadh that could unlock Saudi investment in Israel in exchange for a strengthened U.S. defense pact with Saudi Arabia, among other measures.
Source link: https://www.washingtonpost.com/national-security/2023/09/27/israel-visa-waiver/