ExclusiveUS: Won't solve all issues, but it makes difference for some

Israel to test eased entry for Palestinian-Americans before landing US visa waiver

But Arab activists demand improvements in treatment of all US travelers at all Israeli crossings before Biden administration begins allowing Israelis into US without visas

Jacob Magid

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

Travelers seen exiting Ben Gurion International Airport, as Israel opens its borders and allows tourists to enter the country after months of being shut due to the COVID-19 pandemic, November 1, 2021. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)
Travelers seen exiting Ben Gurion International Airport, as Israel opens its borders and allows tourists to enter the country after months of being shut due to the COVID-19 pandemic, November 1, 2021. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Israel is slated to launch a pilot program next month that will test its preparedness for allowing Palestinian-Americans to more freely travel into Israel, which is a stipulation for Jerusalem to be accepted into the US Visa Waiver Program (VWP) in the fall, an Israeli official and a US official told The Times of Israel on Tuesday.

Meanwhile, pressure was intensifying on the Biden administration from lawmakers and non-governmental organizations concerned that Israel will not uphold the VWP stipulation that it ensure “reciprocal” travel rights for Palestinian-Americans, Muslim-Americans, Arab-Americans and all US citizens, who have long alleged discrimination and mistreatment by authorities at Israeli crossings.

US Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides, who has spearheaded the administration’s effort to allow Israelis to travel to the US for up to 90 days without obtaining a visa, told The Times of Israel in April that Washington would only admit Jerusalem into the VWP if it signs a Memorandum of Understanding codifying the reciprocity commitment with “snapback” provisions if the agreement is violated.

Nides held a call Tuesday with a group of representatives of Arab organizations in Washington who have been lobbying the administration on the VWP. Two of the representatives on the call characterized it as cordial and expressed appreciation for the ambassador’s willingness to hear their concerns.

However, they also expressed unease over what they felt was a gap between their desire to ensure that all Americans are treated fairly at Israeli crossings and Nides’ apparent prioritization of ensuring Palestinian-Americans be allowed to enter Israel and use Ben Gurion Airport.

Currently, Palestinians are barred from Ben Gurion, and since Israel also won’t allow the Palestinian Authority to build its own airport, they are forced to commute to Jordan and fly out of Amman, with all the additional fees and travel time that entails.

Passengers arrive on the Jordanian side of the Allenby Bridge crossing between the West Bank and Jordan on July 19, 2022. (Khalil Mazraawi/AFP)

The Israeli official and the US official familiar with the negotiations between the countries surrounding Israel’s acceptance into the VWP said Jerusalem has agreed to begin allowing Palestinian-Americans to enter Israel and use Ben Gurion Airport. However, the US wants Israel to demonstrate that it has the systems in place to follow through on the commitment.

Accordingly, it has asked Israel to launch a one-month trial period at the beginning of July during which Palestinian-Americans will be able to apply for a 90-day travel authorization to enter Israel through the military liaison to the Palestinians, the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT).

During the trial period, the US wants Israel to demonstrate that a critical mass of Palestinian-Americans are able to apply online through COGAT, receive the 90-day travel authorizations and successfully use them to enter Israel.

Palestinian-Americans will be allowed to use Ben Gurion Airport during that time, but the travel authorizations can be used to commute to Tel Aviv, Jerusalem or any Israeli city. They will still be subject to security considerations though, and Palestinians previously arrested by the IDF may well face difficulty.

Passengers arrive at Miami International Airport before they are screened by US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) using facial biometrics to automate manual document checks required for admission into the US on November 20, 2020, in Miami, Florida. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

The idea is for these permits to mirror the Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) that nationals of countries in the VWP fill out in order 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.

Negotiations are still ongoing, but this would effectively mean that approved Palestinian-Americans will be able to travel in and out of Israel freely from the West Bank for a period of two years once they receive approval, which Biden administration officials hope will be a 24- to 48-hour process.

A COGAT spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment the pilot program and when exactly it will be launched.

Are small steps enough?

While some Arab organizations have lobbied for the reciprocity requirement to apply to the Gaza Strip — home to roughly 500 Americans — the Biden administration is not expected to heed the request, according to the two officials who spoke with The Times of Israel. Currently, the State Department recommends that Americans avoid travel to the coastal enclave ruled by Hamas, which it labels as a terror organization.

But the reciprocity commitment will impact the roughly 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. While those individuals should have been able to travel through Ben Gurion to date, many have complained of discrimination there and have resorted to traveling through the Allenby Crossing between the West Bank and Jordan like most other Palestinians.

The State Department has received complaints about such issues for years and has a longstanding travel advisory in place stating 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.”

Illustrative: Passengers head to the departure gates at Ben Gurion International Airport, June 6, 2022. (Gili Yaari/Flash90)

“US citizens who have traveled to Muslim countries or who are of Arab, Middle Eastern, or Muslim origin may face additional questioning by immigration and border authorities,” the advisory states.

Israel generally justifies its use of profiling, intensive security checks and restrictions on Palestinians as part of its efforts to thwart terror.

Oded Raz, the former deputy head of the Shin Bet’s security services division, told The Times of Israel in April that there had been a significant improvement in the treatment of Arab travelers at Ben Gurion Airport in recent years.

Once Israel is included in the VWP, it will gain access to US travel databases, security systems and protocols in what supporters of the initiative in the administration note will allow Jerusalem to fine tune its own tactics and be less reliant on profiling. Successfully allowing a small segment of the Palestinian population to travel more freely could well demonstrate how the same could be done at a larger scale.

For many of the organizations in Washington weighing in on the matter, the improved treatment of long-profiled American travelers should not be a byproduct of Israel’s entry into the VWP, but rather a condition for its acceptance that should be proven beforehand, and for more than just a one-month trial period.

“Reciprocity means more than a workaround that meets a couple of particular Israeli needs, and even one that meets some Palestinian needs,” said Arab American Institute President James Zogby, who was on the Tuesday call with Nides.

L-R: Public Security Minister Omer Barlev, US Embassy Deputy Chief of Mission Jonathan Shrier, and Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked at the signing of the Preventing and Combating Serious Crime information-sharing agreement, July 7, 2022. (US Embassy in Israel)

“I appreciate that it that has been recognized that Palestinians in the US need to be able to travel to visit family or that Palestinian-Americans in the West Bank need to be able to travel through [Ben Gurion] Airport, but the problem is [much larger than] that,” he argued, insisting that VWP entry requires equal treatment of all American travelers, not just at Ben Gurion Airport but at Israeli checkpoints in the West Bank as well.

“The problem is every port of entry and exit. It doesn’t do you much good to get in if you then are humiliated at every step along the way once you’re in,” Zogby said. “I’m still not convinced that there’s a clear enough understanding on the part of everybody involved in this process.”

Some in the administration say they recognize the concerns raised by skeptics. However, they argue that they can’t solve every problem at once and Israel’s entry into the VWP still presents an opportunity to also improve the lives of tens of thousands of Palestinian-Americans.

But one of the Arab American representatives on the call with Nides noted that the new arrangement for Palestinian-Americans isn’t all that different from the current system where Palestinians are required to submit requests for permits from COGAT where there is little oversight. “He talked about ‘snapbacks,’ but we all know that once Israel is admitted, no US administration is going to remove Israel if it violates the conditions.”

Feeling the heat from all directions

Tuesday’s call was not the only one Biden administration officials have held with concerned citizens regarding Israel’s VWP application.

Senior State Department and Homeland Security Department officials held another call last week with over 30 other Arab community leaders in a virtual gathering organized by the American Federation of Ramallah, Palestine (AFRP).

Two individuals on the call said that Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Israel and Palestinian Affairs Andrew Miller assured participants that newly implemented COGAT restrictions on foreign nationals’ entry into the West Bank would not apply to US citizens.

In a statement issued after the meeting, AFRP’s Hanna Hanania said, “The Palestinian and Arab American community are united in our demand that no exceptions be made for Israel when assessing its eligibility for the US Visa Waiver Program and that the rules of the program are fully and equally applied.”

US President Joe Biden meets then-opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu (right) at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem, July 14, 2022. At left is Secretary of State Antony Blinken; 2nd-left is US Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides. (GPO)

The administration is also feeling pressure from Jewish organizations that have been lobbying lawmakers on the Hill.

The Progressive Israel Network alliance of seven dovish groups penned a letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas on Monday in which they stated that “any agreement permitting Israel entry to the [VWP] must therefore entail it not only promising to end [discriminatory] practices but verifiably doing so on a permanent basis.”

That letter echoed another one sent last month to Blinken and Mayorkas by 16 Democratic senators who asked them to clarify the scope of the reciprocity demand and demonstrate that there will be mechanisms in place to hold Israel accountable if it fails to abide by its commitments.

Sensing the mounting opposition to Israel’s entry into the VWP, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee lobbied for another letter to be drafted in Congress that more clearly advocates support for the initiative.

“We write to express our support for efforts to include Israel in the Visa Waiver Program (VWP) and to encourage both the Department of State and the Department of Homeland Security to prioritize finalizing Israel’s accession this year,” stated the bipartisan letter co-chaired by Sens. Jackie Rosen (D-NV) and Rick Scott (R-FL).

“We recognize that there are still outstanding issues that must be addressed… and we urge both sides to continue working toward addressing these issues – including the reciprocal treatment of US citizens — to ensure Israel’s compliance with all program requirements before the deadline of September 30, 2023,” the letter added.

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