‘Important milestone’: Israel eases travel for Palestinians in bid to join US Visa Waiver Program

The U.S. and Israel signed a memorandum of understanding in Washington, listing the conditions for Israel’s entry into the Visa Waiver Program. Homeland Security and State Department officials would visit the airport and checkpoints to confirm that Israel follows the rules.

By Batya Jerenberg, World Israel News

Israel has launched a six-week pilot program allowing Palestinian-Americans unfettered access to Ben Gurion Airport in a move designed to gain entry to the U.S. Visa Waiver Program (VWP).

During the trial period, visitors will apply for a 90-day travel permit online. The Americans will be checking to see if their requests are answered within two days, if a “critical mass” of requests can be handled, and if the airport personnel then honor the permits without problems.

In one of his last acts as U.S. ambassador to Israel, outgoing envoy Tom Nides signed the memorandum of understanding with Israel’s U.S. Ambassador Michael Herzog on Wednesday.

The “reciprocity agreement,” as Israeli National Security Adviser Tzachi Hanegbi called it, “will apply to any U.S. citizen, including those with dual citizenship, American residents of Judea and Samaria and American residents of the Gaza Strip.”

Implementing this principle strengthens the unbreakable bond between our countries and directly contributes to Israel’s security,” he said.

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“This is an important milestone, which brings us closer to fully complying with the American government’s requirements for the VWP nomination. This achievement is the outcome of the dedicated and intensive professional work by many Israeli and American public servants, who worked hand in hand for many months towards its successful conclusion, first and foremost outgoing Ambassador Tom Nides.”

Israel has customarily viewed such visitors with great caution, considering that those who have family ties to Palestinians in these areas pose a potential security risk.

According to the program’s rules, travelers are should tbe permitted to pass through relevant security checkpoints into Gaza or Judea and Samaria without issue. Reuters cited sources saying that Homeland Security and State Department officials would visit the airport and checkpoints to see whether Israel is properly implementing the program.

The principle of reciprocity, whereby all American travelers are treated equally, regardless of national origin, religion or ethnicity, has been the biggest sticking point in the Jewish state joining the list of countries whose citizens can visit the U.S. without a visa.

State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said that the U.S. would decide whether to include Israel in the Visa Waiver Program by September 30.

Jerusalem has been asking for years to join the VWP, and President Isaac Herzog raised the topic in his meeting with President Joe Biden at the White House.

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The government cleared the other remaining hurdles through recent legislation on information sharing and other requirements.

At the signing ceremony, Ambassador Herzog thanked Nides and Department of Homeland Security Undersecretary Rob Silvers “for their significant contributions” in realizing this “significant milestone towards Israel joining the [visa-waiver] program.”

Nides has been pushing for Israeli compliance ever since he became ambassador two years ago, repeatedly expressing his eagerness to see the country accepted into the VWP.