(JTA) — As of November, Israelis will be able to enter the United States without a visa, a major change that Israel has long sought and that will ease travel for hundreds of thousands of its citizens.
Israel’s entry into the Visa Waiver Program, which now includes 41 countries, means that Israelis traveling to the United States will no longer have to go through a months-long visa application process that carried the threat of denial. It also means that Palestinian-Americans living in the West Bank and Gaza will be able to enter Israel after completing a form and a short waiting period. Israel’s restrictions on Palestinian travel were one barrier to its joining the Visa Waiver Program earlier.
Alejandro Mayorkas, the U.S. homeland security secretary, announced on Wednesday morning that Israel had successfully passed a three-month test of its commitment to treat Palestinian-Americans equally. As part of the program’s reciprocity requirement, The United States mandates that countries in the program allow U.S. citizens to enter without restrictions.
“In advance of this designation, Israel made updates to its entry policies to meet the VWP requirement to extend reciprocal privileges to all U.S. citizens without regard to national origin, religion, or ethnicity,” Mayorkas said.
Israeli ambassador Michael Herzog thanked Mayorkas and Secretary of State Antony Blinken for facilitating Israel’s entry into the program.
“Our people-to-people ties, which are the backbone of our special relationship, will only grow stronger,” Herzog said on social media. “Israelis and Americans will be able to more freely travel between our two countries, interacting and connecting on a personal and professional level.”
Under the program, citizens of member countries simply have to check via U.S. Customs and Border Protection whether they are eligible to travel visa free. Once they get the OK, they may travel to the United States for up to 90 days at a time over a period of two years.
“I fundamentally believe it’s like a win-win-win,” said Scott Lasensky, a former U.S. diplomat who now teaches U.S.-Israel relations at the University of Maryland, and who lobbied for years for Israel’s entry.
“Israelis from all walks of life, who see the United States as a comfortable welcoming place for whom it’s very difficult to travel to the U.S., it’s a huge win for them,” he said. “It’s a big win for Arab Americans. I don’t expect them to celebrate within the broader context of occupation and a very, very, very difficult and stagnant peace process. But it’s a concrete win, in day-to-day terms, for large populations of Arab, Palestinian, Muslim Americans who have challenges traveling to and through Israel.”
Israel’s membership in the program will take effect at the end of November, but its remaining in the program is not guaranteed. Mayorkas indicated in his statement that the United States will continue to monitor Israel’s compliance with its requirements, including equal treatment of Palestinian Americans.
“As is the process with all VWP countries, the U.S. Government will continue to engage with the Government of Israel while monitoring its continued implementation of all program requirements, including the reciprocity commitments it made to the United States on July 19, 2023,” Mayorkas said. Two decades ago, the United States removed Argentina and Uruguay from the program because their faltering economies led to a surge of their citizens overstaying U.S. visas.
How the United States judges Israel’s meeting of the reciprocity requirement is not clear; the memorandum of understanding the sides signed in July has not been made public, although versions have been leaked.
Another requirement for entry into the program is a visa refusal rate of no more than 3%, a threshold Israel met recently. Lower rates of travel during the pandemic may have enabled Israel to meet that requirement. A third requirement for entry into the program is intelligence-sharing standards, which Israel has in recent years made accommodations to meet.
Israel has sought entry into the program for decades, but has faced resistance for not meeting two key requirements: reciprocity and the visa refusal rate. President Joe Biden launched a cross-departmental effort to bring Israel into the program after he met in August 2021 with then-Prime Minister Naftali Bennett.
Arab-American groups tracking the program say Israel continues to discriminate against Arab Americans entering the country. The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee on Tuesday filed a lawsuit to stop Israel’s entry into the program. In a press release, the group listed “the continued discrimination against Palestinian Americans from Gaza, the restrictions on how Palestinian Americans can cross checkpoints into the Occupied West Bank, the inability of Palestinian Americans to rent cars, and the invasive and inhumane treatment of Palestinian Americans when they try to return to the U.S.”
The agreement reportedly carves out an exception for U.S. citizens living in the Gaza Strip, only slightly easing the cumbersome requirements they must meet to travel through Israel to Ben Gurion Airport.
Pro-Palestinian groups say it will be difficult to dislodge Israel from the program once it is in, considering the vast amount of support that pro-Israel groups have garnered to get the country into the program. In June, 65 senators across both parties urged the Biden administration to bring Israel into the program. A small minority of Democrats have urged the Biden administration to toughen the reciprocity requirements before allowing Israel in.