Israel still not eligible for U.S. Visa Waiver Program

Paused Knesset legislation and a reluctance to let Palestinian Americans cross freely into Israel are the major stumbling blocks.

By Batya Jerenberg, World Israel News

The Department of Homeland Security has confirmed that Israel has not yet completed all the steps necessary to enable the country to join the U.S. Visa Waiver Program (VWP), Haaretz reported Wednesday.

“Israel does not currently meet all [program] designation requirements, including extending reciprocal visa-free travel privileges to all U.S. citizens and nationals,” said in a letter circulated by Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.)

The letter called on Secretary of State Antony Blinken not to allow Israel to be admitted to the list of some 40 countries whose citizens do not need prior U.S. permission to enter the country.

Beyer slammed new “discriminatory restrictions” that will be imposed starting Thursday by the Defense Ministry’s Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT) on those wishing to enter Judea and Samaria.

While most American citizens can fly to Israel freely, many Arab Americans find it difficult to get permission to enter the Jewish state in general and Judea and Samaria in particular.

COGAT had put out guidelines in February that were then loosened and republished in September, reportedly under American pressure. They were also changed to be in effect for a two-year pilot period in which additional revisions could be made.

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American Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides said at the time that he was still dissatisfied with the new rules, and would continue to “aggressively engage” with Jerusalem “to make necessary adjustments during the pilot period to ensure transparency as well as the fair and equal treatment of all US citizens and other foreign nationals traveling to the West Bank.”

The concern on Israel’s side is that terrorists or their supporters could be among those who would otherwise have easy access to their compatriots in the country, or the Palestinian Authority. Beyer’s letter does not acknowledge this potential problem, focusing instead on the issue of discrimination.

“It is incumbent upon Israel as a key U.S. ally and beneficiary of significant aid to treat U.S. citizens with dignity and respect regardless of race, religion and ethnicity, and it is especially pertinent at this time because Israel is currently being evaluated for entry into the United States Visa Waiver Program,” Beyer wrote, according to Haaretz.

The letter is now making the rounds among his colleagues for them to add their signatures in support. It would join an earlier letter written by anti-Israel progressive Democrats in June that asked Blinken not to allow Israel to join the VWP due to its “discrimination” against Muslim and Arab Americans at the country’s crossing points.

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In response to a question on the subject State Department Principal Deputy Spokesperson Vedant Patel told reporters at a Tuesday briefing that government officials “continue to work with Israel towards fulfilling all Visa Waiver Program requirements such as extending reciprocal privileges to all US citizens and nationals, including Palestinian Americans.”

“We seek equal treatment and freedom to travel for all US citizens regardless of national origin,” he said, adding that he doesn’t have “any other updates to offer on that.”

Israel has been asking for entry to the VWP for years, as it is an expensive and lengthy bureaucratic procedure to obtain a 90-day U.S. visa for vacationers, students and business people. The subject has been raised at the highest government levels, including in meetings with President Joe Biden.

In addition, the unity government worked hard over the last year to formulate the necessary legislation so that the U.S. can receive information it requires about potential visitors, such as any criminal background data.

The coalition collapsed before the legislation could pass the Knesset.