The US State Department and Homeland Security are on the verge of admitting Israel to an elite club that will allow its citizens to visit the US without a visa for three months.
According to US authorities, an announcement of Israel’s admittance to the Visa Waiver Programme is scheduled for late this week, just before the end of the federal fiscal year on Saturday, which is the deadline for Israel’s admission without having to requalify for eligibility next year.
The program is managed by the Department of Homeland Security, and it now allows people of 40 countries, predominantly in Europe and Asia, to visit the United States without a visa for three months.
According to five officials familiar with the matter who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the decision has not yet been made public, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas is set to make the announcement Thursday, shortly after receiving a recommendation from Secretary of State Antony Blinken that Israel be admitted.
The final declaration will come just eight days after President Joe Biden met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in New York on the fringes of the United Nations General Assembly.
The leaders did not address the matter during their brief statements to reporters, but it has been the subject of months of heated deliberation and debate.
Visa Waiver Helps Netanyahu
Israel’s acceptance into the programme has been a priority for successive Israeli leaders, and it will be a significant accomplishment for Netanyahu, who has sparred frequently with the Biden administration over Iran, the Palestinian conflict, and, most recently, a proposed overhaul of Israel’s judicial system, which critics say will make the country less democratic.
The United States has repeatedly chastised Netanyahu’s far-right government for its treatment of Palestinians, notably its relentless expansion of West Bank settlements, rejection to Palestinian statehood, and fiery anti-Palestinian remarks by senior Cabinet officials.
The US move will provide Netanyahu a much-needed boost at home. He has faced months of large protests over his judicial plan and is sure to face criticism from Palestinians, who argue that the US should not be rewarding the Israeli government at a time when peace negotiations are at a standstill.
Over the last two years, Israel has met two of the three most important requirements for joining the US programme: a low percentage of visa application rejections and a low visa overstay rate. It had struggled to achieve the third criteria, which is a reciprocity requirement, which states that all US citizens, including Palestinian Americans, must be treated equally while travelling to or via Israel.
Entry rules for Palestinian Americans
Israel has traditionally established different entrance rules and screening processes for Palestinian Americans, citing national security concerns. Many people claimed that the procedures were time-consuming and discriminatory.
Americans having Palestinian residency papers in the West Bank and Gaza Strip were mostly denied access to Israel’s international airport. Instead, they were obliged, like other Palestinians, to go through Jordan or Egypt to reach their objectives.
According to officials, Israel has recently changed its entry rules for Palestinian Americans, including letting them to fly in and out of Ben Gurion International Airport in Tel Aviv and travel directly to the West Bank and Israel. Israel has also promised to make it easier for Palestinian Americans to go into and out of the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip.
According to authorities, new regulations went into force earlier this month to codify the modifications, but worries persist, and the Homeland Security Department aims to emphasise in its announcement that it will continue to monitor the situation to ensure that Israel complies. According to the officials, failure to comply could result in Israel’s removal from the programme.
Israelis will be able to travel to the United States for work or pleasure for up to 90 days without a visa under the visa waiver programme by registering with the Electronic System for Travel Authorization.