Biden administration to let Israelis travel to US without visa

By Edward Wong and Eileen Sullivan

WASHINGTON — The Biden administration announced Wednesday (27) that it would allow Israeli citizens to enter the United States without a visa, a step toward improving relations between the two nations at a time when President Joe Biden is engaged in complex diplomacy with Israel on a range of issues.

The move means Israel must take reciprocal actions toward American citizens, including Palestinian Americans who often face difficulties in travelling to Palestinian territories to see family members and friends.

Administration officials said they agreed to accept Israel into the US government’s visa waiver program after monitoring a pilot effort since July, when the two countries signed a memorandum of understanding. Since July 20, Israel has allowed more than 100,000 US citizens, including tens of thousands of Palestinian Americans, to enter Israel without a visa, the officials said.

Any US citizen trying to visit the West Bank can now fly into Ben-Gurion International Airport in Tel Aviv, Israel, and travel to the Palestinian territory overland, the officials said. Previously, Israel forced many Palestinian Americans to go to Jordan first and then cross into the West Bank via the Allenby Bridge.

Washington is still working on some technical arrangements for Israeli citizens, who will be able to travel visa-free to the United States by Nov. 30, the administration officials said.

“This important achievement will enhance freedom of movement for US citizens, including those living in the Palestinian territories or traveling to and from them,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Wednesday in a joint announcement with Alejandro Mayorkas, the secretary of homeland security.

Mayorkas said the entry of Israel into the program would “enhance our two nations’ collaboration on counterterrorism, law enforcement and our other common priorities.”

Several prominent groups had objected to allowing Israel into the program until it could commit to treating Americans, including Palestinian Americans, equally. In a Sept. 8 letter to Blinken, 15 Democratic senators expressed their concerns about the treatment of American travellers to the country based on their ethnicity and religion.

The announcement from the State and Homeland Security departments said Israel had met the various criteria of the agreement and that the US government had determined, after careful monitoring, that the country had made sufficient changes “to extend reciprocal privileges to all US citizens without regard to national origin, religion or ethnicity.” The two agencies also noted that Israel had met a requirement that the rate of non-immigrant visitor visa refusals were below 3% during the previous full fiscal year.

On Tuesday (27) the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee filed a lawsuit in Michigan seeking to stop the Biden administration from entering into the agreement. The group said that Palestinian Americans who have travelled to Israel during the pilot phase of the agreement had faced discrimination, including when they tried to cross checkpoints and rent cars.

With the addition of Israel, the US government now has visa waiver agreements with 41 countries, mostly in Europe and Asia. However, border officers have the power to turn anyone away at the port of entry.

Administration officials said the program aids in security because countries are able to share information on travellers faster, including names on passenger lists.

Biden and his aides are juggling important diplomatic goals on Israel. They have pressed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on his proposed changes to the judiciary, which would curb checks on the prime minister’s office and, in the eyes of critics, move Israel away from democratic governing. Israeli citizens have protested the move for months.

The Biden administration is also pushing Netanyahu to rein in the anti-Palestinian actions and policies of his right-wing coalition government. At the same time, it is trying to get Saudi Arabia to normalize relations with Israel, which in part involves persuading Netanyahu to get his coalition to make concessions to the Palestinians.

The talks on the normalization issue so far have focused on Saudi Arabia’s demands of the United States and have not yet progressed to the point where American and Saudi officials have made specific demands of the Israelis on Palestinian rights.

-New York Times


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