The U.S. has added Israel to its visa-free travel program, allowing Israelis to travel to the U.S. without a visa process – a long-sought after win for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
The Department of Homeland Security announced the previously-speculated move late Tuesday, a week after Netanyahu met with President Biden at the United Nations in New York City.
“Israel’s designation into the Visa Waiver Program (VWP) helps the United States and Israel meet key national security goals and enhances — including through the enhanced Israeli cooperation with the U.S. — counterterrorism, law enforcement, immigration enforcement, document security and border management,” a DHS spokesman said on a call with reporters Tuesday.
The Visa Waiver Program (VWP) currently covers 40 mostly European and Asian countries and is reciprocal, meaning that American citizens — including Palestinian Americans — can also visit Israel without a visa.
“This program not only benefits Israel and the United States, but also citizens who live in the West Bank and Gaza who can now visit Israel visa-free. This effort holds great promise for people-to-people ties between the United States and Israel,” the spokesperson said.
Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen discussed the move before the announcement Tuesday. He said it will begin in November.
“This is a great achievement that testifies to the close relations between Israel and our great ally, the USA,” Cohen said in remarks in Hebrew.
Multiple Israeli leaders have sought admission to the VWP, which has strict requirements, including a high visa acceptance rate and low visa overstay rate. Reciprocity was the difficult requirement to meet, The Associated Press reported, due to Israeli concerns over Palestinian-American access to the country.
Israel has run a separate immigration and screening process for Palestinian Americans than other U.S. citizens, which raised complaints that the process is discriminatory and often resulted in those Palestinian Americans not being able to use Israeli airports.
The political victory for Netanyahu comes as he faces significant backlash at home over proposed changes to the country’s judicial system, which have resulted in mass protest.
The DHS spokesman said the change enables easier travel for Americans, especially those who have previously been discriminated against in attempts to travel to the country, notably Americans with Palestinian heritage and Muslims.
“More Americans now have easier access to Israel, due to the recent change in long-standing Israeli policy and practices that barred or restricted access to certain U.S. citizens, dual nationals, and often subject to U.S. citizens of Palestinian or Arab heritage, or Muslim faith to significant difficulties and unequal treatment,” he said.
Palestinian American activists criticized the move.
“There are so many problems with this decision,” Yousef Munayyer, the head of the Palestine-Israel Program and senior fellow at Arab Center Washington, told The AP. “The reciprocity requirement is clearly still not being met since Israeli policy continues to treat some Americans, specifically Palestinian Americans, differently.”
“The [Biden] 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,” he said.
Earlier this month, a group of 15 Senate Democrats sent a letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken calling on the secretary not to extend VWP inclusion to Israel, saying that Palestinian-Americans are still being discriminated against.
“Based on all available information… it is clear that Israel is not in compliance with this law as it relates to reciprocal treatment for all U.S. citizens, and is not on track to come into compliance before the September 30, 2023 deadline,” the senators wrote.