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US giving Israel unique treatment in visa waiver programme process, say experts

Washington is providing Israel with a 'different set of rules', experts say, after signing a memorandum of understanding on visas
Tourists arrive to Israel's Ben Gurion Airport on 23 May 2021, after a partial re-opening of the border to inoculated tourists from 14 countries.
Tourists arrive at Israel's Ben Gurion Airport, on 23 May 2021(AFP)

As the United States continues to assess whether or not to accept Israel into its coveted visa waiver programme - a long-sought goal of Israel's - several experts on US policy on Israel-Palestine have raised concerns that Washington is rushing through its assessment without proper scrutiny.

The experts, speaking at a webinar on Thursday hosted by the Washington-based think tank, the Arab Center, said that Israel appears to be receiving special treatment, unlike any of the other 40 countries currently in 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 the webinar.

"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."

However, Shapiro added that a reportedly leaked copy of a recent agreement signed by Israel and the US showed that Washington is giving Israel until May 2024 to fully implement its system of offering all US citizens visa-free travel to Israel. This is despite the 30 September deadline the US has given to decide whether or not to accept Israel into the VWP.

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Middle East Eye could not independently verify the reported document.

"This is a clear exception that's been made for Israel to just sort of bypass having the systems in place," Shapiro said.

Israel's decades-long discrimination

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. 

Last week, 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.

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"It appears that this trial period is short so that Israel can meet the deadline," said Zaha Hassan, a fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

"There is no explanation for giving Israel only a few weeks to prove that its policies that have been in place for decades no longer exist."

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

Earlier this month, Francesca Albanese, the UN special rapporteur on the Palestinian territories, said in a report that the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories has turned the West Bank into an open-air prison for Palestinians.

"We have been collecting stories of how Arab Americans have been treated at Israel's borders and ports of entry for literally decades. We have petitioned our government and have gone to our government to say we are US passport holders, and this is how we are facing discrimination," Maya Berry, executive director of the Arab American Institute, said during Thursday's webinar.

"Now as we consider admitting Israel into the visa waiver programme, our government is choosing to privilege the state of Israel with entry into this programme, suggesting I think, for the first time, a different set of rules with regards to" whether an equal protection claim can be made here.

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