US Secretary of State Antony Blinken must not move forward with accepting Israel into the visa waiver program, a group of 15 Democratic senators wrote.
This is because Israel is not expected to fully meet all the conditions by the deadline, according to a copy of the senators’ letter received by Walla on Thursday.
Blinken and Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas, who also received a copy of the letter, must announce by September 30 that Israel meets the conditions for joining the program.
Senior American and Israeli officials claim that at this stage the plan is for Blinken and Mayorkas to make an affirmative announcement and move forward with the process.
In mid-July, Israel and the United States signed a memorandum of understanding that defined the conditions for Israel’s entry into the program – which was a significant step forward in accepting Israel.
In the two months since then, Israel has implemented a pilot program, during which the US State Department and the Department of Homeland Defense monitored how Israeli authorities apply the new procedures toward Americans of Palestinian or Arab origin.
Senior Israeli officials say that in the last two months, 12,000 Americans of Palestinian origin who live in the West Bank have entered Israel under the new procedures. In addition, several thousand Palestinian-Americans who live in the US and who landed at Ben-Gurion Airport entered Israel and also benefited from the new procedures.
It is estimated that about 50,000-70,000 Americans of Palestinian origin live in the West Bank.
The letter was initiated by Sen. Chris Van Hollen, and was also signed by senators Brian Schatz, Tom Carper, Tammy Duckworth, Dick Durbin, Martin Heinrich, Ed Markley, Jack Reed, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Peter Walsh, Jeanne Shaheen, and Tina Smith.
"Serious concerns" over waiver program
The members of the group, who received several briefings from the State Department in recent months regarding the progress of Israel’s entry into the visa program, wrote that they still have “serious concerns” regarding the move.
The senators wrote that the agreement signed by Israel and the US in July stipulated that Israel would operate a single visa system for all American citizens, only starting on May 1, 2024, long after the September 30 deadline, when it must meet all American conditions.
Additionally, the senators argued that American-Palestinians living in the West Bank would have to go through a “two-step process” of entering Israel and not just a one-step process. This violates the principle that the Biden administration established, according to which there should be reciprocity between the treatment of Israeli citizens when entering the US, and the treatment of American citizens when entering Israel.
“There is no section of American law that states that a country that enters the visa waiver program can discriminate between groups of American citizens for the first few months of the year, just because that country undertakes to treat all American citizens equally in the remaining months of the year,” the senators wrote to Blinken.
The senators also added that if Israel cannot fully implement the reciprocity conditions of the visa exemption program by September 30, “it can use the following 12 months to make sure that it fully implements them.”
During the briefings that the senators received from the Biden administration, they were informed that if Israel is not included in the visa exemption program now, it will be much more difficult to do so next year. This is because it’s not clear if Israel will be able to meet the threshold according to which less than 3% of visa applications are refused. This year Israel managed to meet this threshold.
“It would be a violation of the law if we accelerated the entry of a country into the visa exemption program in a certain year even though it did not meet a basic condition, just because it is not clear whether, in the following year, it will be able to meet another basic condition,” they wrote.
The senators added that according to reports they receive, Americans of Palestinian origin who live in the West Bank cannot enter Israel with their cars and those who land in Israel are not allowed to rent a car at the airport.
“If the United States acts according to the principle of reciprocity, it will mean that certain groups of Israelis – such as those living in the settlements – will not receive permission to rent cars when they arrive in the United States or will receive different treatment from other Israelis,” the senators wrote.
The senators also called on Blinken to make sure that Israel fully meets all the conditions before it is included in the visa exemption program and not after the move has already started.
“Although we hope that Israel will meet all conditions in the future, its entry into the visa exemption program cannot come at the expense of the principle of equal treatment for all Americans and the principle of reciprocity,” they wrote.
The senators wrote to Blinken that they would like to have a phone call with him as soon as possible to discuss this issue.