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 travellers.
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.
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“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 programme 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.
BREAKING: ADC files federal lawsuit against DHS & State Dept. over Israel's Visa Waiver Program inclusion concerns. Credible reports and ADC’s own investigations have shown that Israel failed to meet all of the legal requirements for admission. pic.twitter.com/MhDCAcaLHR
— ADC National (@adc) September 26, 2023
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 programme, 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.