WASHINGTON (AP) — The Biden administration is poised to admit Israel this week into an exclusive club that will allow its citizens to travel to the United States without a U.S. visa despite Washington’s ongoing concerns about the Israeli government’s treatment of Palestinian Americans.
U.S. officials say an announcement of Israel’s entry into the Visa Waiver Program is planned for late in the week, just before the end of the federal budget year on Saturday, which is the deadline for Israel’s admission without having to requalify for eligibility next year.
The Department of Homeland Security administers the program, which currently allows citizens of 40 mostly European and Asian countries to travel to the U.S. for three months without visas.
Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas is set to make the announcement Thursday, shortly after receiving a recommendation from Secretary of State Antony Blinken that Israel be admitted, according to five officials familiar with the matter who spoke Sunday on condition of anonymity because the decision has not yet been publicly announced.
Blinken’s recommendation is expected to be delivered no later than Tuesday, the officials said, and the final announcement will come just eight days after President Joe Biden met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in New York on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly. The leaders did not raise the issue in their brief remarks to reporters at that meeting but it has been a subject of intense negotiation and debate for months as has been the Biden administration’s effort to secure a deal to normalize relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia.
Both State and the Homeland Security departments said they had “nothing to announce publicly at this time,” adding that the two agencies will make a “final determination in the coming days.” The U.S. is working with Israel toward “fulfilling the full range of law enforcement, national security, and immigration related requirements” of the program, according to the State Department.
Israel’s admission has been a priority for successive Israeli leaders and will be a major accomplishment for Netanyahu, who has sparred frequently with the Biden administration over Iran, the Palestinian conflict and most recently a proposed remake of Israel’s judicial system that critics say will make the country less democratic.
Netanyahu’s far-right government has drawn repeated U.S. criticism over its treatment of Palestinians, including its aggressive construction of West Bank settlements, its opposition to Palestinian statehood and incendiary anti-Palestinian comments by senior Cabinet ministers.
The U.S. move will give a welcome boost at home to Netanyahu. He has faced months of mass protests against his judicial plan and is likely to come under criticism from the Palestinians, who say the U.S. should not be rewarding the Israeli government at a time when peace efforts are at a standstill.
Israel met two of the three most critical criteria over the past two years — a low percentage of visa application rejections and a low visa overstay rate — to join the U.S. program. It had struggled to meet the third, which is a requirement for reciprocity that means all U.S. citizens, including Palestinian Americans, must be treated equally when traveling to or through Israel.
Claiming national security reasons, Israel has long had separate entry requirements and screening processes for Palestinian Americans. Many complained that the procedures were onerous and discriminatory. Americans with Palestinian residency documents in the West Bank and Gaza Strip were largely barred from using Israel’s international airport. Instead, like other Palestinians, they were forced to travel through either Jordan or Egypt to reach their destinations.
In recent months, Israel has moved to adjust its entry requirements for Palestinian Americans, including allowing them to fly in and out of Ben Gurion International Airport in Tel Aviv and going directly to the West Bank and Israel proper, according to the officials. Israel also has pledged to ease movement for Palestinian Americans traveling in and out of the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip.
New regulations took effect earlier this month to codify the changes, although concerns remain and the Homeland Security Department intends to stress in its announcement that it will continue to monitor the situation to ensure that Israel complies, according to the officials. Failure to comply could result in Israel’s suspension from the program, the officials said.
Palestinian American activists have been critical of the impending decision, which has been expected for some time due to the priority placed on it by both the Israeli and U.S. governments.
“There are so many problems with this decision,” said Yousef Munayyer, the head of the Palestine-Israel Program and senior fellow at Arab Center Washington. “The reciprocity requirement is clearly still not being met since Israeli policy continues to treat some Americans, specifically Palestinian Americans, differently. The administration however seems committed at the highest levels to overlooking this continued discrimination against American citizens to rush Israel into the program before the deadline.”
Munayyer said it was “unclear why the Biden administration seems dead set on offering political victories for Benjamin Netanyahu at a time when his far-right government is outraging Palestinians and many Israelis with their extremist agenda.”
Under the waiver program, Israelis will be able to travel to the U.S. for business or leisure purposes for up to 90 days without a visa simply by registering with the Electronic System for Travel Authorization.
Associated Press writer Josef Federman in Jerusalem contributed to this report.