WASHINGTON (JTA) — For the first time in 20 years, most Palestinian Americans will be able to enter and leave Israel through its main airport, part of a major policy change that will significantly ease access to the country for hundreds of thousands of West Bank residents and Palestinians abroad.
The change was made as part of Israel’s ongoing effort to join the Visa Waiver Program, which would enable Israelis to travel to the United States for up to 90 days without first obtaining a visa.
One of the key obstacles to joining the program was that Palestinian citizens of the United States who are on the population registry Israel maintains have since the the early 2000s been barred from using Ben Gurion International Airport and must instead travel through Jordan. The United States has demanded that in order to join the program, Israel must treat all U.S. citizens entering the country equally, no matter their national origin.
Under a memorandum of understanding signed Wednesday, Israel will move closer to treating U.S. citizens who hold Palestinian identity documents as they would any others entering Israel. Palestinian Americans, including those who appear on the registry, would be allowed to enter Israel for a 90-day period and travel where they wish, as would any other U.S. citizen.
The registry is a list maintained by Israel of Palestinians who have residency status in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, even if they are living abroad. Israel has at times directed Palestinian Americans who are not on the registry to enter through Jordan. Palestinians say the randomness of how the rules have been applied has been daunting.
The memorandum was signed by Michael Herzog, the Israeli ambassador to Washington; Tom Nides, the U.S. ambassador to Israel; and Rob Silvers, the Department of Homeland Security undersecretary for policy. “This is a significant milestone towards Israel joining the program,” Herzog wrote on Twitter, attaching a photo of himself signing the document.
Tzachi HaNegbi, Israel’s national security advisor, said Israel’s compliance with the document would begin as of Thursday.
The memorandum, a copy of which was viewed by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, appears to include two major caveats that likely will not please Palestinian Americans who have been lobbying for this change. Palestinian Americans living in the West Bank — some 70,000 — must still pre-apply for entry through the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories, or COGAT, the Israeli military authority that governs many aspects of Palestinian life in the West Bank.
That provision would remain in place until May 1 of next year, when Israel says COGAT’s database will be integrated with the broader database that it uses at points of entry. Thereafter, Palestinian Americans will not need to pre-apply. The U.S. has expressed a desire for the screening to take a maximum of 24 to 48 hours.
The other caveat is that the new terms will not be extended to the 700 Americans currently living in the Gaza Strip. In their case, cumbersome travel requirements will be only slightly eased.
The deadline for entering the Visa Waiver Program, a club whose membership Israel has coveted for decades, is Sept. 30. Israel sees membership in the program as a means to facilitate business in the United States and allow its citizens to tour that country at will. A small subset of Israelis who have been denied visas have said the refusal has incurred financial and personal costs.
The reverse is not the case with U.S. citizens traveling to Israel. They generally arrive at Ben Gurion International Airport without pre-arranged visas, although they may still be flagged at the airport if immigration officials uncover anything meriting suspicion.
The United States will monitor the new policies regarding Palestinian Americans, which Israel has portrayed as a pilot initiative, and will decide by the deadline if Israel merits joining the Visa Waiver Program.
“Our understanding is that this policy will apply to U.S. citizens, including Palestinian Americans on the Palestinian population registry,” Matthew Miller, the State Department spokesman, said Wednesday at a daily press briefing. “And that will begin a process in which we will monitor not just their implementation of these policies but their compliance with these policies and compliance with other facets of the Visa Waiver Program.”
Mainstream pro-Israel groups, led by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, have for years pressed for Israel’s entry into the program. Last month, 65 senators from both parties urged the Biden administration to accelerate Israel’s entry into the program.
“Israel’s entry into the United States Visa Waiver Program will serve as a bridge to bring the American and Israeli people closer together by fostering personal connections and mutual understanding,” said William Daroff, the CEO of the Conference of presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, in a text message. “It will enrich both of our countries through shared knowledge, experiences, and perspectives.”
Progressive Democrats, meanwhile, backed by Arab American groups, have urged the administration to slow-walk Israel’s entry until it ends discriminatory practices. The State Department has warned that Arab Americans traveling to Israel may face difficulties and discrimination.
Ending discrimination based on national origin was the last of three conditions Israel had to meet to join the program. It has met the other two requirements: reshaping its intelligence-sharing apparatus to sync with those of the other member countries and meeting a threshold wherein fewer than 3% of Israeli visa applicants are denied approval.
For a long time, the visa denial threshold was one of the most daunting challenges for Israel to overcome. U.S. immigration officials were on the lookout for Israelis seeking to work illegally in the United States because of a once-thriving industry of young Israelis who sold products at U.S. malls.
“For entry into the Visa Waiver Program, all of the Program’s mandatory requirements must be satisfied,” the Department of Homeland Security said in a statement. “The Department is working closely with the Government of Israel in its efforts to meet those requirements, in furtherance of our shared goal that Israel join the Visa Waiver Program.”
Insiders say that Israel credits meeting the 3% threshold in part to COVID-19, and Israeli officials are concerned that the end of the pandemic will increase the number of Israelis seeking to enter the United States to work illegally. If that happens before Israel joins the program, membership would again be off the table.
“A quirk in Israel’s pandemic depressed travel scene means that effectively an attempt to ‘stall’ Israel’s entry will kill Israel’s prospects,” said Scott Lasensky, a former American diplomat who has written and published extensively on the visa waiver question. “Insiders tell me if it rolls to next year, and there is no administration waiver, post-pandemic travel will probably notch Israel back up over the 3% refusal rate mandated by Congress.”
Once a country is in the Visa Waiver Program, however, it stays in, even if visa refusal rates climb. A number of countries, particularly in eastern and Central Europe, have in the past spiked above the threshold but stayed in.
The memorandum signed Wednesday, however, suggests that Israel may still be susceptible to being booted out of the program. “Under U.S. law, the Secretary of Homeland Security has broad discretion to undertake remedial measures, including in consultation with the Secretary of State, the suspension or termination a country from the VWP,” it says.
A sticking point may be whether Israel discriminates against Arab Americans who are not on the Palestinian population registry. The memorandum requires spot-checks of statistics regarding denial of visa entry and examination of “persons referred or detained for enhanced screening, questioning, or examination.”