WASHINGTON (JTA) — Some 65 U.S. senators from both parties have urged the Biden administration to finalize Israel’s entry into the Visa Waiver Program by Sept. 30.
Israel has sought to join the program, which enables citizens to travel to the United States without a visa, for decades. Currently, Israelis who do not hold citizenship in any of the 40 countries in the waiver program must apply for permission to travel to the United States, a process that typically results in a visa but can be extensive.
The letter, sent Wednesday to Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Majorkas, was spearheaded by Jacky Rosen, a Nevada Democrat, and Rick Scott, a Florida Republican. It alludes to the final roadblock keeping Israel out of the program — the profiling of Arab Americans seeking entry into the country — while pressing for the September deadline.
“We recognize that there are still outstanding issues that must be addressed before Israel’s participation in the program can be finalized, and we urge both sides to continue working toward addressing these issues – including the reciprocal treatment of U.S. citizens — to ensure Israel’s compliance with all program requirements before the deadline of September 30, 2023,” the letter says.
The letter, which is backed by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, comes as the current U.S. ambassador to Israel, Tom Nides, aims to wrap up Israel’s entry into the visa program before he leaves the post this summer.
The Times of Israel has reported that Nides is negotiating a deal under which Israel would ease but not totally remove restrictions for Palestinian Americans. Arab American groups reject such compromises and are pressing for full reciprocity.
Israel has in recent years met two of the requirements for entry into the program: Its visa refusal rate — the percentage of travelers denied visas because of evidence that they may abuse the visa by overstaying or illegally seeking employment — has dropped below the requisite 3%. Additionally, Israel’s government has passed laws and introduced measures that facilitate intelligence-sharing among the member nations.
But the program’s reciprocity remains a roadblock: The waiver must apply to all citizens regardless of ethnic or religious origin. Israel requires special permits of Americans holding Palestinian identity documents, and the State Department over the years has warned in travel advisories that “some U.S. 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.”
A number of Democrats have joined Arab American and other groups in demanding full reciprocity as a condition of Israel’s entry into the program. A letter sent last month to Blinken and Mayorkas from 14 Senate Democrats urges the Biden administration not to compromise on the “blue is blue” standard, meaning that all Americans carrying a blue passport should be accorded the same treatment.
“Every country, of course, has the right to establish its own rules for the entry of foreigners,” said that letter, which had the backing of J Street, the liberal Jewish Middle East policy group. “However, if a country wants the privilege of participating in our Visa Waiver Program, it does not have the right to discriminate against U.S. citizens.”
The new letter sent Wednesday was signed by 26 Democrats and 39 Republicans. Among Senate Democrats were Jewish senators Rosen, Ben Cardin of Maryland, Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, Ron Wyden of Oregon, and Michael Bennet of Colorado. Jewish signatories to the letter last month urging more stringent application of the reciprocity requirement included Brian Schatz of Hawaii, who spearheaded the letter with Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, and Bernie Sanders of Vermont.