US to decide on Israel's entry into VWP by September 30th

Israel launches pilot for US visa waiver, easing travel for Palestinian-Americans

US citizens in West Bank can apply for permits to travel to and through Israel for 90-day visits; US to monitor implementation, ensure passengers not mistreated

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

Passengers in the arrival hall of Ben Gurion International Airport near Tel Aviv on July 11, 2023. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)
Passengers in the arrival hall of Ben Gurion International Airport near Tel Aviv on July 11, 2023. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

Israel will begin easing travel restrictions for Palestinian-Americans in a significant step toward its goal of being welcomed into the US Visa Waiver Program (VWP) in the coming months, the State Department announced on Wednesday.

Starting Thursday, US citizens on the Palestinian Authority’s population registry will be allowed to travel to and through Israel — including through Ben Gurion International Airport — for up to 90 days, a senior State Department official said during a briefing with reporters. The program, which Israel has called a pilot, was first reported by The Times of Israel last month.

Palestinian-Americans will thereby join all other US citizens who have long been able to travel to Israel for up to three months for business or pleasure.

Until now, Ben Gurion was off limits to those Palestinians, and they were forced to travel to Jordan and fly out of Amman, with all the additional fees and travel time that entails. Israel bars the Palestinians from having their own airport.

The change announced Wednesday is a key component of the US requirement that all countries in the VWP extend reciprocal travel privileges to all American citizens, just as the US ensures to all nationals from the 40 countries that are already in the program.

The new policy was enshrined in a reciprocity memorandum of understanding (MOU) signed by US Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides and Israel’s Ambassador to the US Michael Herzog, Netanyahu’s office said.

“This procedure will allow any US citizen to enter Israel (without a visa), and subsequently, with the acceptance of Israel as a member of the Visa Waiver Program, will allow any Israeli to enter the US without the need for a visa,” said a statement from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office confirming the policy changes.

Israel has long sought entry into the VWP, as it would allow its citizens to travel to the US for up to 90 days without obtaining a visa beforehand — an often arduous process that can take months if not over a year to secure.

However, Jerusalem has never been able to qualify for the program due to a relatively high percentage of visa application rejections as well as its treatment of Arab and Muslim travelers, who have long complained of discrimination at Ben Gurion Airport as well as other Israeli crossings.

Israel has defended its practices as necessary security precautions given the terror threats it faces.

The argument was again called into question earlier this week after a young Palestinian-American woman posted a thread on Twitter about her experience traveling to Israel from the US during which agents from Israel’s El Al Airlines barred her from bringing a laptop or charger onto the plane due to alleged “security” concerns.

She endured hours of additional private screening and was eventually barred from boarding the El Al plane and forced to book a new flight through another airline.

An El Al spokesperson rejected the woman’s claims of discrimination and said the inspection of her luggage sparked “several alerts” that required additional security checks.

“All of the operations were done in accordance with the security procedures and the instructions of the authorized bodies for the purpose of maintaining the safety of the aircraft and all passengers and for these reasons only,” the spokesperson said.

The US has long been aware of such cases and a State Department advisory warns travelers that “some US citizens of Arab or Muslim heritage (including Palestinian-Americans) have experienced significant difficulties and unequal and occasionally hostile treatment at Israel’s borders and checkpoints.”

Nonetheless, US President Joe Biden in 2021 directed his administration to help secure the Jewish state’s entry into the VWP. Administration officials recognize that entry into the VWP would demonstrate the close nature of ties between the US and Israel while also viewing the improvements to the treatment of groups of Americans historically harassed at the airport as an added benefit.

The State Department announced in January that Israel had met the key benchmark of lowering its visa application rejection rate below three percent.

US President Joe Biden looks at Israel’s President Isaac Herzog as they meet in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, July 18, 2023. (Susan Walsh/AP)

The Knesset subsequently passed several pieces of legislation regarding passenger information sharing that are being implemented across various government agencies in both countries.

What still remains to be implemented and tested is the Israeli commitment to ensure equal treatment of all US citizen travelers, without regard to national origin, religion or ethnicity.

The senior State Department official said that US agency representatives will be monitoring over the next six weeks Israel’s implementation of the new measures pertaining to US travelers on the PA population registry.

State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller told reporters during Wednesday’s briefing that the US would decide whether Israel “merits admission into the program” by September 30.

In the meantime, the US wants Israel to demonstrate that a critical mass of Palestinian-Americans are able to apply online for the 90-entry permits through the military liaison to the Palestinians — the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT) — and successfully use them to travel in and out of Israel.

Palestinian-Americans will not only be allowed to travel through Ben Gurion Airport, they can also use their travel authorizations to commute to any Israeli city. They will still be subject to security considerations though, and Palestinians previously arrested by the IDF will likely face continued difficulties transiting.

In this photo provided by Austin Boschen, people wait in line to go through the customs at Dallas Fort Worth International Airport in Grapevine, Texas, Saturday, March 14, 2020. (Austin Boschen via AP)

These permits will mirror the Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) that nationals of countries in the VWP fill out to enter the US. ESTA has a two-year validity during which those approved can enter for as many stays up to 90 days as they’d like without having to reapply, so long as they do not overstay or work illegally.

US officials have expressed hope that the Israeli approval process for Palestinian travelers will not take more than 24 or 48 hours.

While the statement from Netanyahu’s office states that the new travel guidelines will apply to Palestinians in both the West Bank as well as the Gaza Strip, Wednesday’s MOU obtained by The Times of Israel reveals that US citizens residing in Gaza will effectively be barred from using the VWP to enter Israel “given current security threats.” The State Department still cautions citizens against traveling to the Hamas-run territory.

This subset numbering at roughly 500 will instead be able to continue applying for permits to enter Israel through the Erez pedestrian crossing, as is currently the case.

A US citizen from Gaza who is located outside the coastal enclave, on the other hand, will be allowed to enter Israel under VWP guidelines.

The State Department official briefing reporters Wednesday asserted that VWP entry is not just based on formal changes to Israel’s policies regarding Palestinian travelers but also its treatment of US travelers as a whole — an apparent reference to the harassment of Arab and Muslim Americans.

The official said that the US would be “seeking to learn what type of experience they’re having” and wants to ensure that all American travelers are treated equally regardless of their background.

“We do have an approach in place whereby we can get information from a variety of sources,” the official said.

US Ambassdor to Israel Tom Nides visits the Western Wall on his last day in office, July 12, 2023. (Western Wall Heritage Foundation)

However, the issue of treatment of travelers by Israel has long been one that is more difficult to monitor, as not everyone who’s been harassed goes on to file a formal complaint to US authorities and countries are still allowed to take precautions due to security concerns.

Accordingly, some US officials have privately acknowledged to The Times of Israel that the main priority for the Biden administration when it comes to Israel’s entry into the VWP is ensuring that it allows US citizens on the PA population registry to receive the 90-day travel authorizations.

The policy will impact some 70,000 Palestinian-Americans who are on the PA’s population registry, half of whom live in the West Bank. There are believed to be over 400,000 more Palestinian-Americans based in the US who are not on the PA population registry.

Israel will continue to bar those it deems a security threat from entering the country but Reuters cited an Israeli source who said that Jerusalem would not impose a strict ban on those who advocate boycotting the Jewish state. This was, however, the reason cited the Netanyahu government to bar entry to US Reps. Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar in 2019. Tlaib, who is of Palestinian descent, was seeking to visit her grandmother in the West Bank.

One other step Israel implemented earlier this week was changing its travel guidelines to allow dual US nationals from Israel’s four enemy states of Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Lebanon to qualify for entry under the VWP rules, according to the Wednesday MOU.

Those who have traveled to a country labeled by the US as a State Sponsor of Terrorism will likely be barred from entry through the VWP but will still be encouraged to pursue other visa options that require more time to secure.

Illustrative: In this July 15, 2019, file photo, US Rep. Ilhan Omar, a Minnesota Democrat, right, speaks as US Rep. Rashida Tlaib, a Michigan Democrat, listens during a news conference at the Capitol in Washington. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File)

This is a shift from Israel’s current policy, which is a blanket denial of anyone from an enemy country, regardless of if or when they lived there.

The MOU also states that the VWP standards allowing all US citizens to freely travel to & through Israel will supersede COGAT rules implemented in October that limited entry of foreigners to West Bank

Israel’s entry into the VWP has become an increasingly contested issue in Washington as Democratic lawmakers — particularly ones with constituents who’ve faced harassment while traveling to Israel — expressed skepticism that Israel would sufficiently change its policies in order to merit acceptance into the program.

The concern was voiced in a series of letters that dozens of progressives sent to the Biden administration. This sparked several counter letters by more conservative lawmakers with backing from pro-Israel groups, which encouraged Biden to accept Jerusalem into the VWP.

The statement from Netanyahu’s office said, “The implementation of these procedures strengthens the indisputable ties between the two countries and contributes directly to Israel’s security.”

The National Security Council chairman thanked Nides for spearheading the effort over the past nearly two years.

Foreign Minister Eli Cohen echoed Netanyahu’s praise of the outgoing US ambassador and said his office has been working with Israeli consuls abroad to ensure that the new policies are properly implemented.

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