(CTN News) – Despite Washington’s continued reservations over the Israeli government’s treatment of Palestinian Americans, the Biden administration is expected to welcome Israel this week into an exclusive club allowing its citizens to travel to the United States without a U.S. visa.
The end of the federal budget year on Saturday marks the deadline for Israel’s admittance without having to requalify for eligibility next year; U.S. sources indicate an announcement of Israel’s entry into the Visa Waiver Programme is scheduled for late in the week.
The Department of Homeland Security manages the program and now permits nationals of 40 countries (mainly in Europe and Asia) to visit the United States visa-free for up to three months.
Five officials familiar with the matter spoke out on Sunday on the condition of anonymity because the decision has not yet been publicly announced; they said that Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas would announce on Thursday, shortly after receiving a recommendation from Secretary of State Antony Blinken that Israel be admitted.
Israel’s Admission Requirements and Concerns
This final announcement will come just eight days after President Joe Biden met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in New York on the fringes of the U.N. General Assembly, and Blinken’s suggestion is scheduled to be delivered no later than Tuesday, officials said.
However, the topic has been the subject of months of intensive negotiation and debate, and the Biden administration has been working hard to reach a deal to normalize relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia, although neither leader brought it up in their brief remarks to media after the meeting.
Both the State Department and the Department of Homeland Security indicated they had “nothing to announce publicly at this time” but that a “final determination” would be made in the “coming days.” To “fulfil the full range of law enforcement, national security, and immigration related requirements” of the program, the United States is cooperating with Israel.
Even though Netanyahu has frequently clashed with the Biden administration over Iran, the Palestinian conflict, and, most recently, a proposed remake of Israel’s judicial system that critics say will make the country less democratic, getting Israel admitted has been a priority for successive Israeli leaders and will be a major accomplishment for him.
U.S. officials have voiced repeated displeasure with Netanyahu’s ultra-right government for its treatment of Palestinians, particularly its aggressive settlement building in the West Bank, its resistance to Palestinian statehood, and the fiery anti-Palestinian sentiments made by some of the Cabinet’s highest officials.
The U.S. decision will provide Netanyahu a much-needed boost at home. The Palestinians will undoubtedly criticize him, saying the United States shouldn’t be awarding the Israeli government while peace talks are stalled, and he has been the target of months of huge protests over his judicial agenda.
Over the previous two years, Israel has satisfied two of the three most important requirements for joining the U.S. program: a low number of visa application rejections and a low percentage of visa overstays.
Thirdly, it had a hard time fulfilling the criterion for reciprocity, which states that all Americans, including Palestinian Americans, must be afforded the same rights and privileges when visiting or transiting Israel.
Israel has traditionally discriminated against Palestinian Americans by imposing different immigration criteria and screening processes, citing concerns for national security. Many people felt the processes were unfair and time-consuming.
Israeli authorities have generally prevented American citizens holding Palestinian residency permits from using the airport in Israel. Instead, like all Palestinians, they had to go through Jordan or Egypt to get where they needed to go.
Officials say that in recent months, Israel has relaxed its entry criteria for Palestinian Americans, allowing them to travel freely between the West Bank and Israel via flights into and out of Ben Gurion International Airport in Tel Aviv. Furthermore, Israel has promised to make it easier for Palestinian American citizens to enter and exit the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip.
Officials say that while they are relieved that new laws went into effect earlier this month to codify the changes, they are still concerned and want to emphasize that the Homeland Security Department will continue to monitor the situation to ensure that Israel complies.
The officials warned that if Israel did not cooperate, it risked being expelled from the program.
The decision has been anticipated for some time because to the high priority it has received from the Israeli and American governments, but it has been met with criticism by Palestinian-American activists.
“There are so many problems with this decision,” said Yousef Munayyer, director of the Palestine-Israel Programme and a senior fellow at the Arab Centre in Washington.
Israeli policy plainly continues to treat some Americans differently, especially Palestinian Americans, and thus the reciprocity criteria is still not met. However, to get Israel into the program before the deadline, the administration is committed at the highest levels to ignoring this ongoing discrimination against American citizens.
“Unclear why the Biden administration seems dead set on offering political victories for Benjamin Netanyahu,” Munayyer said, “at a time when his far-right government is outraging Palestinians and many Israelis with their extremist agenda.”
Israeli citizens who register with the Electronic System for Travel Authorization will be exempt from needing a visa for short-term (up to 90 days) business or tourism visits to the United States.