In last-ditch plea, 15 senators tell Blinken not to okay visa-free travel for Israelis

Democrats argue in letter that Israel won’t be in compliance with requirements of VWP, since Palestinians are still being discriminated against at ports

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US bureau chief

FILE: Passengers at Ben Gurion International Airport, June 6, 2022. (Gili Yaari/Flash90)
FILE: Passengers at Ben Gurion International Airport, June 6, 2022. (Gili Yaari/Flash90)

In a last-ditch effort, a group of 15 Democratic senators penned a letter to US Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Friday, urging him not to admit Israel into the US Visa Waiver Program (VWP) at the end of the month, charging Israel has continued to discriminate against Palestinian-Americans, despite assurances that it would start treating all US travelers equally.

Both US and Israeli officials speaking on condition of anonymity told The Times of Israel that the Biden administration is unlikely to heed the senators’ call and that Israel is all but set to be accepted into the VWP by the September 30 deadline.

The group of progressive lawmakers led by Sen. Chris Van Hollen decided it was important to voice their objections nonetheless.

The senators highlighted the memorandum of understanding (MOU) signed by Israel and the US in July, which outlines Israel’s commitment to ensure “equal treatment and freedom of travel for all US citizens regardless of national origin, religion, or ethnicity.”

But the lawmakers noted that the MOU goes on to green-light a “two-tiered system,” since Palestinian-Americans will have to apply for travel permits via a system set up by Israel’s military liaison until May 2024 when Israel will have its electronic system for all US travelers up and running.

“There is no provision in law that provides that a visa waiver country can discriminate against certain groups of US citizens for the first seven months of the program (i.e., October 1st through April 30th) simply because a country claims they will treat all US citizens equally for the last five months of the fiscal year,” the senators wrote in the letter first reported by the Axios news site.

Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-MD, speaks during a senate appropriations subcommittee on financial services and general government hearing to examine proposed budget estimates and justification for the 2024 fiscal year at the Capitol in Washington on Wednesday, March 22, 2023. (AP Photo/Amanda Andrade-Rhoades)

The lawmakers noted that Homeland Security Department officials explained to them during a recent briefing that the reason the US is working so hard to get into the VWP this year is because Jerusalem will likely be unable to keep its annual visa application refusal rate below the three percent benchmark for a second year in a row. Israel managed to do so last year for the first time since travel numbers were way down due to the pandemic.

But the senators were unmoved by the circumstances. “it would be a violation of law to rush to admit a country that does not meet a key requirement of the program in one year simply because it may not be able to comply with a different requirement the following year,” they wrote.

They went on to express alarm over updated Israeli travel guidelines that still differentiated between Palestinian-Americans from the West Bank and Palestinian-Americans from Gaza, with the latter largely barred from enjoying the benefits of the VWP. “The exclusion of an entire group of US citizens because of their Gaza designation on the Palestinian Population Registry is a clear violation of ‘Blue is Blue’ and a concerning indication of Israel’s failure to implement the reciprocity requirements,” the senators wrote.

The Biden administration has worked in recent weeks since the MOU’s signing to convince Israel to further ease its restrictions on American travelers from Gaza, highlighting that Israel allows thousands of Palestinians from the enclave to enter the country every day for work.

The senators also brought to Blinken’s attention a line in the MOU that states, “Nothing in this Memorandum is intended to apply to principles and commitments not otherwise addressed in this Memorandum, to include… regulations applicable to use of Israeli vehicles and vehicle transit.”

Passengers at the arrival hall in Ben Gurion Airport near Tel Aviv on February 6, 2023. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

“The inclusion of that provision indicates that the Government of Israel reserves the right to provide unequal treatment to certain groups of US citizens once they enter the country,” they said, pointing to reports they’ve received of Palestinian-Americans who have been barred from crossing Israeli checkpoints via car because they are on the Palestinian Authority’s population registry.

“If the US were to reciprocate, it would mean that certain groups of Israelis like, for example, those living in settlements on the West Bank, would not be permitted to rent cars upon arrival in the United States, or would be otherwise given different treatment,” the senators argued.

The Democratic lawmakers noted that Israel has a long history of discriminatory treatment against Arab and Muslim Americans. “That is why it is absolutely critical that you be able to verify and certify Israel’s compliance with the reciprocity and equal treatment requirements prior to admission into the Visa Waiver Program – not at some point in time after the program has been initiated.”

“Those requirements clearly have not been met and the MOU itself indicates that they will not be met by September 30,” the senators wrote. “While we very much hope that Israel will meet all the requirements at some future date, its entry into the program cannot come at the expense of the… the requirement of reciprocity for all US citizens.”

Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Sen. Bernie Sanders, talk during a Democratic presidential primary debate, February 19, 2020, in Las Vegas, hosted by NBC News and MSNBC. (AP/John Locher)

The lawmakers went on to request a phone call with Blinken to discuss the matter as soon as possible.

Joining Van Hollen in the initiative were Sens. Brian Schatz, Tammy Baldwin, Tom Carper, Tammy Duckworth, Dick Durbin, Martin Heinrich, Ed Markey, Jeff Merkley, Jack Reed, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Peter Welch, Jeanne Shaheen, and Tina Smith.

RELATED: We’re ‘on cusp’ of entry into US Visa Waiver Program — Israeli official

Asked for comment on how the US will respond if Israel fails to implement its electronic system for all US travelers by May 2024, a State Department spokesperson said,
“Israel has shared its expectations that the Marom system is to be operational by May 2024, and we expect Israel to fulfill that commitment to us.”

“As a general matter, the United States does continuous monitoring for all 40 Visa Waiver Program countries to ensure that they are in good standing and meet all program requirements. When that is not the case, measures designed to bring a country back into compliance have been imposed,” the spokesperson added.

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