US admits Israel into visa waiver program

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The Biden administration announced Wednesday that it is admitting Israel into the United States Visa Waiver Program (VWP), allowing visa-free entry by Israeli citizens from November 30, officials said.

The decision, which Israel’s foreign ministry said on Monday was expected, is a win for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s religious-nationalist government, whose relations with Washington have been strained over its judiciary overhaul plan and its policies toward the Palestinians.

Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said the announcement further “strengthens the security, economic and people-to-people ties between the United States and Israel.”

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Palestinian-Americans both living in the West Bank and living in the United States now have the ability to enter Israel visa free, and fly in and out of Ben Gurion airport, reducing barriers to travel for these Americans, the US said.

For admission to the program that allows visitors to stay for up to 90 days without a visa, Washington requires countries to meet requirements on issues such as counterterrorism, law enforcement, immigration enforcement, document security, and border management.

Countries must also treat all US travelers equally, regardless of other passports they hold.

In Israel’s case, that means free passage for Palestinian Americans at Ben Gurion airport.

Some Palestinians have protested against Israel’s entry into the VWP, citing what they say are decades of discriminatory treatment of Arab Americans and harassment at Israel’s borders.

In a pilot period since July 20, Israel has eased access for Palestinian Americans through its borders and the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

Between 45,000 and 60,000 Palestinian Americans live in the West Bank, a US official estimated. An Israeli official put the figure lower, saying that of 70,000 to 90,000 Palestinian Americans worldwide, 15,000 to 20,000 are West Bank residents.

There were previously 40 countries in the VWP, with nations added infrequently, Croatia being the most recent in 2021.

A group of four Democratic US senators including Chris Van Hollen said Wednesday Israel has failed to meet requirements all American travelers are treated equally.

Blinken said the announcement “will enhance freedom of movement for US citizens, including those living in the Palestinian Territories or traveling to and from them.”

On Tuesday, the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee on Tuesday filed suit against the Department of Homeland Security, seeking to block Israel’s entry to the program.

A US judge in Detroit denied an emergency motion on procedural grounds, saying the department had not been provided proper notice of the lawsuit.

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