June 19, 2024

DEVELOPING STORY,

Washington says Israel’s admission to Visa Waiver Program recognises ‘shared security interests, close cooperation’.

US President Joe Biden’s administration has confirmed it will allow Israelis to travel visa-free to the United States, despite condemnation and concerns over Israel’s treatment of Palestinian and Arab-American travellers.

In a statement on Wednesday, the US Department of Homeland Security said Israel had been designated for the Visa Waiver Program (VWP) and that Israeli nationals will be able to travel to the US without a visa by November 30.

“The designation of Israel into the Visa Waiver Program is an important recognition of our shared security interests and the close cooperation between our two countries,” Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said.

“This designation, which represents over a decade of work and coordination between the United States and Israel, will enhance our two nations’ collaboration on counterterrorism, law enforcement, and our other common priorities.”

The move comes just days after Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen said the Biden administration was set to admit Israel – a top US ally in the Middle East – to the programme in a move Cohen welcomed as “great news”.

It also follows a high-profile meeting last week between Biden and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly, where the two leaders pledged continued cooperation.

But the prospect of Israel’s entry into the VWP has faced widespread condemnation from Arab-American civil rights advocates.

That is because one of the main elements of the programme is what is known as “reciprocity”; countries in the VWP must allow visa-free travel for American citizens in exchange for a similar easing of visa requirements for their own nationals travelling to the US.

However, scores of US and other foreign nationals of Palestinian and other Arab descent are routinely turned away by Israeli authorities, who control all access to the occupied Palestinian territories.

For example, Israel in 2019 blocked US Congresswomen Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib from visiting the country and the occupied Palestinian territories over “their boycott activities against Israel”.

But in Wednesday’s statement, the Biden administration said Israel “made updates to its entry policies to meet the VWP requirement to extend reciprocal privileges to all US citizens without regard to national origin, religion, or ethnicity”.

“This important achievement will enhance freedom of movement for U.S. citizens, including those living in the Palestinian Territories or traveling to and from them,” said US Secretary of State Antony Blinken.

Still, human rights advocates have cast doubt on whether Israel would live up to its commitments.

On Tuesday evening, the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) said it had filed a lawsuit against Israel’s VWP designation. “Credible reports and ADC’s own investigations have shown that Israel failed to meet all of the legal requirements for admission,” the group said.

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