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US admits Israel into Visa Waiver Program in major boost to bilateral ties

Israel has been admitted into the US Visa Waiver Program (VWP), US President Joe Biden’s administration announced on Wednesday after years of efforts from both governments, solidifying a major boost to bilateral ties.

After long being forced to wait many months to apply for and secure a visa, Israelis will, going forward, only be required to fill out an Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) form several days before embarking on a tourism or business trip to the US that is up to 90 days in length.

The US still needs time to prepare its electronic systems for Israel’s admittance into the VWP, but Biden administration officials briefing reporters on Tuesday ahead of the official announcement said they expect to have them in place by November 30.

Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas and Secretary of State Antony Blinken made the official announcement on Wednesday.

In a briefing to Israeli journalists earlier in the day, US Embassy Chargé d’Affaires Stephanie Hallett offered a “mazal tov” to Israel on becoming the 41st country to enter the VWP, calling it “yet another reflection of the strength of our bilateral security, economic and cultural relationship.”

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While Israel has sought entry into the VWP for several decades, this past fiscal year was one of the first times it met a key requirement — a visa application refusal rate below three percent.

That feat came after an intensive campaign led by former US ambassador to Israel Tom Nides and the US Embassy in Jerusalem aimed at informing Israeli travelers how to properly fill out visa application forms, though it also received an assist from atypically low travel numbers due to the pandemic.

However, it took until the last minute for the countries to iron out the details of another key component of the VWP — that Israel grant reciprocal travel rights to all US travelers akin to those provided by the US to citizens of countries participating in the program.

FILE: Passengers at Ben Gurion International Airport, June 6, 2022. (Gili Yaari/Flash90)

The Biden officials briefing reporters on Tuesday clarified that the US would continue to monitor Israel’s compliance with the VWP requirements and reserves the right to suspend or terminate Israel’s membership in the program.

“Entry into the program is not the end of a process, but rather the start of a close, continuing collaboration on maintaining all of these program requirements, including the continued extension of reciprocal privileges by a partner country,” Hallett said, echoing the warning from administration officials.

Palestinian-Americans and Americans of Arab and Muslim backgrounds have long faced discrimination by Israeli authorities while traveling to and from the Jewish state.

Palestinians are largely barred from using Ben Gurion Airport and are forced to fly in and out of neighboring Amman before crossing the Allenby Border Crossing between the West Bank and Jordan by foot, making the travel experience more lengthy and costly.

Israel generally justifies its use of racial profiling, intensive security checks, and restrictions on Palestinians as part of its efforts to thwart terror.

But the Biden administration made clear that it would not admit Israel until it eased its travel restrictions, at least for those with US citizenship.

A Palestinian police officer shuts the main gate to Beit Hanun at the Erez crossing between Israel and the northern Gaza Strip, on August 4, 2022. (MOHAMMED ABED / AFP)

On July 19, Israel and the US signed a memorandum of understanding, detailing the terms of the reciprocity requirement, which are different from that of any other VWP member.

Israel committed to treating all US travelers equally, including those of Muslim and Arab backgrounds, while reserving the right to refuse entry to those it deems to be a significant security threat.

It also agreed to allow the roughly 70,000 Palestinian-Americans identified on the Palestinian Authority’s population registry as living in the West Bank to apply for an ESTA-like permit, allowing them to enter Israel for up to 90 days, including to fly out of Ben Gurion Airport.

Israel later agreed to grant similar privileges to the roughly 700 US citizens listed on the PA’s population registry as residents of the Gaza Strip. However, that subset will still face stricter conditions than US citizens from the West Bank, given that the US still discourages its citizens from traveling to Gaza, which is run by Hamas — a US-designated terror organization.

Israel began easing travel restrictions the day after the MOU was signed, and over 100,000 US citizens, including tens of thousands of Palestinian-Americans, have successfully entered Israel visa-free since, said the administration official briefing reporters Tuesday, adding that results seen by the US during the trial period were “impressive.”

“The information that we collected,” Hallett explained, “there was a lot of data and in person — not just from the Israeli government, but in person data that we collected — showed that Israel is implementing its commitments in its new travel policies and is permitting all US citizens to apply to enter Israel visa free for short-term stays for business, tourism or transit for up to 90 days.”

To use the ESTA program, Israelis must be over the age of 18 and have a biometric passport that is valid for ten years. Otherwise they still have to apply for visas in Tel Aviv or Jerusalem.

US Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides, left, and Deputy Ambassador Stephanie Hallett in a photograph posted on July 21, 2023. (US Embassy in Israel)

Hallett noted that Israelis with an existing visa appointment should not cancel the meeting, because B-1 and B-2 visitor visas are valid for ten years, and allow visa holders to remain in the country for six months. Under ESTA, travelers can stay for only 90 days.

In addition, those entering on visitor visas can change their visa category,  which cannot be done under ESTA.

Hallett also noted that Israelis looking to stay in the US for extended periods to study or work still need visas from the embassy and cannot enter under the VWP.

She cautioned Israelis on the dangers of scammers. “Israeli citizens should only use the ESTA application on the Department of Homeland Security website,” she said. “No one needs to pay a third party to do this, and they shouldn’t. ESTA is very easy to use.”

The US made a point of warning Israel not to refuse entry to American citizens who have expressed support for boycotts of Israel or its settlements, an Israeli source familiar with the matter told The Times of Israel, clarifying that Jerusalem did not commit to heeding the request. In 2019, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu barred Democratic Reps. Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar from visiting, citing their backing for Israel boycotts.

While the VWP enjoys overwhelming support from Israelis, it still fell prey to political infighting. Parties that now make up the current right-wing coalition refused to support necessary legislation while they served in the opposition last year. Netanyahu’s Likud party cited security concerns regarding the easing of restrictions on Palestinian-American travelers as justification for blocking the bills it went on to pass several months later upon returning to power.

Palestinians make their way through an Israeli checkpoint to attend the Friday prayers of Ramadan at Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa Mosque, near Bethlehem in the West Bank March 24, 2023. (Wisam Hashlamoun/Flash90)

US lawmakers have also sought to block the initiative, with several dozen progressive Democratic Congress members arguing that the improvements Israel made in its treatment of Palestinian-Americans fell short of the reciprocity standard used on other VWP member countries.

A group of 15 senators penned a letter to Blinken earlier this month, pointing out that Palestinian-Americans will until next year be required to apply for travel through an app designed by Israel’s military liaison (COGAT) — while all other US citizens will be able to enter Israel without that step. Israel has committed to installing an ESTA-like system for all US citizens, including Palestinian-Americans, by May 2024.

The administration official briefing reporters Tuesday said that the separate COGAT app for Palestinian-Americans did not amount to “systematic differences in terms of [their] treatment.”

“We respect and understand the views of Congress, but based on the information we collected, we reached a different conclusion regarding the satisfaction of [the reciprocity] requirement,” the administration official said.

Hours before Wednesday’s announcement, though, the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) filed a federal lawsuit against the Homeland Security and State departments, claiming that they were “arbitrarily and capriciously” redefining the legally defined reciprocity requirement for Israel and asking the Eastern District of Michigan Court to halt actions to admit Israel into the VWP.

“Even within the new policies announced by Israel are a myriad of ways that American citizens are discriminated against, and that separate and unequal system has no place in a US program,” ADC said in a statement, listing continued discrimination against Palestinian-Americans from Gaza, restrictions on how Palestinian-Americans can cross West Bank checkpoints, the inability of Palestinian-Americans to rent cars and the invasive treatment of Palestinian-Americans when returning from Israel to the US.

File: US Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides (L) and opposition chairman Benjamin Netanyahu meet in the Knesset on December 9, 2021. (US embassy in Israel)

Those same issues have been identified by the Biden administration in recent weeks, but it sufficed with creating a bilateral working group with Israel to address them rather than block the country’s admission altogether.

While the ADC lawsuit may manage to temporarily delay Israel’s admission into the VWP, it is not expected to block it completely.

The issue of Palestinian-Americans driving cars into Israel has yet to be fully solved, Hallett acknowledged: “We expect this working group to identify a solution that ensures equivalent driving and vehicle crossing opportunities for all US citizens holding a valid US passport.”

Explaining the importance of the VWP, the administration official briefing reporters characterized it as “first and foremost a security partnership that also facilitates commerce, legitimate travel and strengthens people-to-people ties.”

Travelers seen exiting Ben Gurion International Airport, as Israel opens its borders and allows tourists to enter the country after months of being shut due to the COVID-19 pandemic, November 1, 2021. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

“Program requirements in the field of counterterrorism, law enforcement, immigration enforcement, documents security and border management ensure that comprehensive policies and practices are in place to share information, screen travelers, prevent fraud and corruption and secure borders,” the official continued. “It is also one of the US government’s most effective counterterrorism tools.”

“The decision to admit Israel was taken not as a favor but because it benefits both US and Israeli interests,” the official added.

The official recognized that Israel’s entry into the VWP would not address disparate treatment of Palestinians who aren’t US citizens but pledged to continue working through other channels to address welfare and freedom of movement of the Palestinian people.

The official also noted that Israeli National Security Council chair Tzachi Hanegbi told American counterparts that the VWP standards have “materially improved [Israel’s] national security.”