WASHINGTON: The United States said Wednesday it would start letting Israelis visit without visas, after what it said were successful efforts by its ally to address concerns it discriminates against Arab Americans, an assessment contested by some lawmakers.
In an achievement long sought by Israel that places it in the same league as most Western nations, President Joe Biden’s administration said that Israelis will no longer need visas for short trips to the world’s largest economy starting in late November.
The decision came after Israel in July promised a series of steps to comply with longstanding US demands to treat all US passport holders equally without discriminating against Americans who are of Palestinian or other Arab heritage or who are Muslim.
“Israel’s admittance into the visa waiver programme is an important achievement in the 75-year-old US-Israel partnership,” a US official said on condition of anonymity.
“But to be clear, the decision to admit Israel was taken not as a favour, but because it benefits both US and Israeli interests,” he said.
Despite the insistence on politics not playing a part, Biden made the decision as he increasingly works with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu - whose hard-right government Biden has frequently criticized - to seek a historic peace deal with Saudi Arabia.
A number of lawmakers from Biden’s own Democratic Party had urged him not to go ahead before a Saturday deadline, saying that the United States should have maintained pressure until Israel ends a two-tiered system that treats US citizens with Palestinian connections differently.
“It is clear that Israel is not in compliance with this law as it relates to reciprocal treatment for all US citizens,” said a letter signed by 15 senators led by Chris Van Hollen and Brian Schatz and including Bernie Sanders.
Already, Israel does not require visas for Americans generally.
But until the July agreement, Palestinian Americans seeking to enter the West Bank were obliged to cross by the Allenby Bridge with Jordan and were not allowed through Ben Gurion airport near Tel Aviv, Israel’s main international gateway.
The US official called the impact of the July agreement “impressive,” saying that some 100,000 Americans have entered since then, including tens of thousands of Palestinian Americans, some of them through Ben Gurion airport.
But the Democratic senators said that more change was necessary as US citizens who hold Palestinian identification cards still cannot rent cars at Ben Gurion and some have been stopped at Israeli checkpoints that prohibit Palestinians from going through.
An Arab American group announced Tuesday that it was filing a lawsuit to stop Israel’s admission into the visa waiver programme and also pointed to the questioning of Palestinian Americans as they try to leave.
Announcing the lawsuit, Abed Ayoub, national executive director of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, said there could be no “separate classes” of US citizens.
“Admitting Israel into the visa waiver programme would be an endorsement of discrimination against Palestinian and Arab Americans,” he said.
But another US official said that Israel met demands by keeping refusal of Americans seeking to enter as non-immigrants at 2.27 per cent in the last fiscal year, within the target of a maximum three percent.
US officials said they would review Israel’s progress and could rescind the visa waiver status if there is backsliding.
Historically the United States, in letting foreigners enter without visas, has been most concerned that they will not stay illegally and that their countries verify their passports.
Nearly all Western nationals enjoy visa-free entry into the United States including people from all European Union members except Bulgaria, Cyprus and Romania.
Other beneficiaries include people from high-income Asian societies - Japan, South Korea, Singapore, Taiwan and Brunei.