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Israel not in compliance with visa waiver programme, Senate Democrats say

More than a dozen senators raise concerns with Biden that Israel is creating a 'two-tiered system' of entry for American citizens
Travellers move with their luggage trolleys at Israel's Ben Gurion Airport on 3 July 2023.
Travellers with their luggage trolleys at Israel's Ben Gurion Airport, on 3 July 2023 (AFP)

A group of more than a dozen US senators sent a letter to the Biden administration on Friday, warning against moving forward with allowing Israel to be a part of its visa waiver programme.

The 15 lawmakers, all Democrats, said, that according to several briefings with the administration and communication with US citizens who attempted to enter Israel during its trial period for the visa waiver programme, Israel is not currently complying with the US requirements and should not be admitted into the programme.

"The contacts we have had from US citizens seeking to travel to Israel since the MOU went into effect, it is clear that Israel is not in compliance with this law as it relates to reciprocal treatment for all US citizens, and is not on track to come into compliance before the September 30, 2023 deadline," the senators said.

"While we very much hope that Israel will meet all the requirements at some future date, its entry into the program cannot come at the expense of the 'Blue is Blue' principle and the requirement of reciprocity for all US citizens," they added, using a term that refers to the equal treatment of all US citizens.

The letter was spearheaded by Senator Chris Van Hollen and Brian Schatz, and comes weeks before a deadline for the US to make a decision as to whether to allow Israel into the visa programme.

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Israel has been striving for inclusion in the visa programme for a long time. The programme permits overseas visitors to remain in the US for up to 90 days without a visa, reciprocating the same privilege to US citizens in participant countries.

In July, US ambassador to Israel Thomas Nides and Israeli President Isaac Herzog, who was on a visit to Washington, signed a “reciprocity agreement” to allow American citizens the ability to freely enter Israel.

The US also announced it would be monitoring the changes over a period of six weeks and then make a decision about whether or not to allow Israel's entry into the visa waiver programme by 30 September.

Palestinian and other Arab Americans have long been discriminated against by Israeli authorities, as well as by Israeli forces and settlers in general.

'Two-tiered system'

One of the primary concerns brought up by the lawmakers in their letter was that in this current trial period, Israel has created a "two-tiered system that discriminates between different groups of US citizens – a system that clearly fails to meet the reciprocity requirements of the law."

The letter also said that according to the agreement signed between the US and Israel, Washington is giving Israel until May 2024 to fully implement its system of offering all US citizens visa-free travel to Israel.

US giving Israel unique treatment in visa waiver programme process, say experts
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This is despite the 30 September deadline the US has given to decide whether or not to accept Israel into the visa waiver programme.

In July, policy experts noted that the US was giving Israel unique treatment and appeared to be rushing its assessment of Israel's qualifications to enter the visa programme.

"With all other countries that have entered the visa waiver programme (VWP), those countries have had to get their ducks in order before they could enter the visa programme," Adam Shapiro, advocacy director for Israel-Palestine at Democracy for the Arab World Now (Dawn), said during a webinar hosted in July.

"They've either had to pass new legislation in their countries, set up new rules and regulations, [and] establish new electronic systems to process people coming in out of the country. All of that had to be done, accomplished and finished, and tested prior to the country entering the visa waiver programme."

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