The Biden administration has announced that Israeli citizens will be allowed to enter the United States without a visa, a move aimed at strengthening relations between the two countries. This decision comes amid ongoing complex diplomacy between President Biden and Israel on various issues. To reciprocate this gesture, Israel must also take actions to facilitate the entry of American citizens, including Palestinian Americans who often face difficulties when traveling to Palestinian territories to visit their families and friends.
According to administration officials, the decision to include Israel in the U.S. government’s visa waiver program was made after a pilot effort that began in July and a subsequent memorandum of understanding between the two countries. Since then, over 100,000 U.S. citizens, including tens of thousands of Palestinian Americans, have been able to enter Israel without a visa. This means that any U.S. citizen wishing to visit the West Bank can now fly into Ben-Gurion International Airport in Tel Aviv and travel overland to the Palestinian territory. Previously, Palestinian Americans were forced to go through Jordan before crossing into the West Bank.
While Israel will be able to travel visa-free to the United States by November 30, Washington is still working on some technical arrangements for Israeli citizens. Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken and Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro N. Mayorkas emphasized the significance of this achievement in enhancing the freedom of movement for U.S. citizens, especially those living in the Palestinian Territories. The entry of Israel into the visa waiver program is also expected to enhance collaboration between the two nations on counterterrorism, law enforcement, and other shared priorities.
However, some prominent groups had raised concerns about allowing Israel into the program without ensuring equal treatment for American citizens, including Palestinian Americans. In a letter to Secretary Blinken, 15 Democratic senators expressed their concerns about the discriminatory treatment faced by American travelers of certain ethnicities and religions. Nevertheless, the State and Homeland Security Departments announced that Israel had met the required criteria and made sufficient changes to extend reciprocal privileges to all U.S. citizens, regardless of national origin, religion, or ethnicity. Israel’s rate of nonimmigrant visitor visa refusals also met the required standard.
It is important to note that the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee filed a lawsuit seeking to prevent the Biden administration from entering into this agreement, citing discrimination faced by Palestinian Americans during the pilot phase. Nevertheless, with Israel’s inclusion, the U.S. government now has visa waiver agreements with 41 countries, primarily in Europe and Asia. This program aids in security by facilitating the sharing of traveler information between countries. In the context of Israel, the Biden administration is juggling various diplomatic goals, including pressing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on proposed changes to the judiciary and urging him to address anti-Palestinian actions and policies. The administration is also working towards normalizing relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel, which involves persuading Israel to make concessions to the Palestinians.