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U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas has decided to include Israel in the visa waiver program, senior administration officials said at a press briefing on Wednesday.
An upgrade to relations between the countries. BIDEN/REUTERS
Why it's important:
- Israel has tried for many years to enter the visa waiver program, and the Biden administration's decision is an upgrade in relations between the countries.
- The decision is expected to affect hundreds of thousands of Israelis and hundreds of thousands of Americans who travel between the countries each year.
- As part of the move, Israel agreed to unprecedentedly ease the freedom of movement of tens of thousands of Americans living in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, as well as Palestinian, Arab and Iranian Americans living in the United States.
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- Mayorkas' decision comes after a two-month period during which the U.S. government monitored Israel's treatment of Palestinian Americans and Arab Americans entering and leaving the country.
- Mayorkas made the decision after U.S. Secretary of State Tony Blinken signed a letter earlier this week stating that Israel had met U.S. conditions and recommending that it be included in the visa waiver program.
- U.S. officials said at a briefing to reporters that after the inspection, they concluded that Israel had met U.S. security requirements and the U.S. requirement to treat all Americans equally when entering Israel.
- The U.S. officials said the Biden administration would continue to monitor the conduct of Israeli authorities toward Americans of Palestinian, Arab and Iranian descent, stressing that U.S. law makes it possible to suspend a country's membership in the visa waiver program or even exclude it from the program if it does not meet U.S. requirements.
- Negotiations between Israel and the United States on Israel's entry into the visa waiver program began in earnest after President Joe Biden took office. The person who led the move was Israel's ambassador to Washington at the time, Gilad Erdan.
- The breakthrough in this issue took place under the previous government in Israel, against the background of the Biden administration's desire to strengthen it. The agreement on pushing the issue more seriously was reached during former Prime Minister Naftali Bennett's visit to Washington in August 2021, following his meeting with President Biden.
- Former U.S. Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides and Vice President Stephanie Hallett pushed the move intensively over the past year and managed to gain the support of Blinken, Mayorkas and senior White House officials.
Between the lines:
- The negotiations that took place during the Bennett-Lapid government were close to maturing, but due to opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu's blocking of legislation on the subject for political reasons, the issue was delayed for a long time. When the new government was formed, Netanyahu renewed negotiations and eventually reaped the fruits sown by his predecessors.
- The decision to include Israel in the visa waiver program is a significant achievement for Netanyahu in Israeli public opinion, at a time when his government is under intense domestic and international criticism against the backdrop of the legal revolution.
- Various Biden administration officials said during internal discussions on the issue several months ago that including Israel in the visa waiver program at this time would reward Netanyahu's extremist government for its bad behavior, former and serving U.S. administration officials said.
- According to them, Israel's ambassador to the United States, Tom Nides, claimed at the time that the move would not be a reward for Netanyahu but would be a realization of American interests and improve the lives of tens of thousands of Americans living in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
- "We're not doing Israel a favor here," a senior U.S. official said, stressing that the decision serves U.S. interests by improving U.S. security, increasing trade and tourist traffic, and giving more freedom of movement for Palestinian Americans.
The other side:
- A few weeks ago, about 15 Democratic senators sent a letter to Secretary of State Tony Blinken claiming that Israel does not meet the conditions of the visa waiver program regarding equal treatment of all American citizens, and called on Blinken not to advance the move.
- A senior U.S. official said at a press briefing on Monday that the Biden administration is aware of senators' concerns but stressed that the administration has reached a different conclusion about Israel's compliance with the visa waiver program, especially when it comes to reciprocity.
- Today, Democratic Senators Chris Van Hollen, Brian Schatz, Jeff Merkley and Peter Walsh issued a joint statement reiterating their belief that Israel does not meet the entry requirements for the visa waiver program when it comes to the requirement to grant equal treatment to all Americans upon entering the country.
- "We are deeply concerned by the administration's decision to move forward with preparing Israel for the visa waiver program in violation of this principle. We intend to closely monitor the situation and examine whether American citizens continue to suffer discrimination on the basis of ethnicity, nationality or religion," the senators said.
- In the coming weeks, the US administration will implement changes in procedures to allow Israelis to register on a special website and pay a fee before flying to the United States, instead of issuing a visa at the embassy.
- A senior U.S. administration official said the changes in procedures are expected to be completed by Nov. 30, and from that point Israelis will be able to fly to the United States without the need for a visa.
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