Skip to main content

Israel's acceptance into US visa waiver programme met with outrage

Announcement leads to outrage and scepticism from Palestinian Americans, rights groups and US lawmakers
President Joe Biden meets with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in New York on 20 September 2023.
President Joe Biden meets with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in New York, on 20 September 2023 (AP)

The Biden administration has announced that the US has accepted Israel into its visa waiver programme (VWP), despite concerns made by rights groups, Palestinian Americans, and lawmakers that Israel is discriminating against different groups of Americans travelling to the country.

The State Department and Department of Homeland Security made the announcement on Wednesday morning, ahead of the 30 September deadline the US gave itself to make a decision on the matter.

Now becoming the 41st country to join the VWP, Israeli citizens will be allowed visa-free travel into the US for up to 90 days, and US citizens will be given the same privilege when travelling to Israel.

Israel's entry into the VWP will go into effect on 30 November, according to the State Department.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that Israel's entry into the coveted programme "represents a critical step forward in our strategic partnership with Israel".

Stay informed with MEE's newsletters

Sign up to get the latest alerts, insights and analysis, starting with Turkey Unpacked


Palestinian Americans and other US citizens immediately responded to the announcement with outrage, saying that the country has not stopped its discrimination of Palestinians at points of entry.

"Today, the Biden administration granted Israel’s most right-wing government admission into a visa waiver program that appears to discriminate against US citizens based on their identity and background," Jehad Abusalim, executive director of the Washington-based Jerusalem Fund, said on X.

Beth Miller, the political director for Jewish Voice for Peace Action, said that the decision endorses "the systematic discrimination of US citizens of Palestinian, Arab, and Muslim descent.

It also "handed a massive victory to the most extremist and racist government in Israeli history", Miller added.

The US and Israel signed a "reciprocity agreement" in July, which kicked off a trial period for the VWP, with the Biden administration saying it would monitor the entry of Americans into Israel over a six-week period.

In making its announcement on Wednesday, the State Department said that Israel had updated its entry policies and maintained compliance with them as it allowed Palestinian Americans into the country without a visa.

"This important achievement will enhance freedom of movement for US citizens, including those living in the Palestinian Territories or travelling to and from them," Blinken said.

Yumna Patel, the Palestine news director at the outlet Mondoweiss, went on social media to convey her outrage over the news, which she received while in a waiting room trying to enter Israel.

"I found out about this news as I, an American citizen, sit in a waiting room at the Israeli border after being interrogated on my pregnancy status, and harassed & threatened after I complained about the prying questions. Happy that my govt is celebrating its 'common priorities'," Patel said on X.

Lawsuit over Israel's acceptance into VWP

The announcement was also met with scepticism from a number of US lawmakers. Senators Chris Van Hollen, Brian Schatz, Jeff Merkley, and Peter Welch issued a statement on Wednesday saying that the Biden administration's decision is in violation of the central tenet of the VWP - the reciprocity between Israel and the US in how they treat each other's citizens.

"Adherence to this important American tenet of reciprocity and equal treatment of all US citizens is critical to the integrity of the Visa Waiver Program, and we are deeply concerned with the Administration’s decision to move forward in violation of that principle," the senators said.

Rights group sues US government to block Israel's entry to visa waiver programme
Read More »

"We will carefully monitor the situation to determine whether Americans continue to face discrimination based on their ethnicity, national origin, or religion."

Van Hollen spearheaded a letter earlier this month signalling that Israel was not in compliance with the VWP and that it should not be allowed into the programme as it currently stands.

On Tuesday, the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) filed a lawsuit against the State Department and Department of Homeland Security, seeking an injunction that would block Israel's entry into the VWP.

"This is all so unnecessary, all the US government had to do was maintain the standard it has with every other country in the visa waiver programme," Huwaida Arraf, a lawyer representing the ADC, told Middle East Eye earlier.

"This lawsuit could have been avoided, but the DHS and the State Department resurrected the debunked notion that separate is somehow equal. As these plaintiffs show, that notion is a farce."

Middle East Eye delivers independent and unrivalled coverage and analysis of the Middle East, North Africa and beyond. To learn more about republishing this content and the associated fees, please fill out this form. More about MEE can be found here.