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Biden administration approves visa-free travel for Israelis to US despite controversy

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The Biden administration has confirmed that Israelis will be granted visa-free travel to the United States. The decision to include Israel in the Visa Waiver Program (VWP) was met with mixed reactions, especially concerning Israel’s treatment of Palestinian and Arab-American travelers.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security, in a statement released on Wednesday, announced that Israeli nationals would be eligible to travel to the United States without the need for a visa by November 30.

Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas stated, “The designation of Israel into the Visa Waiver Program is an important recognition of our shared security interests and the close cooperation between our two countries.

This designation, which represents over a decade of work and coordination between the United States and Israel, will enhance our two nations’ collaboration on counterterrorism, law enforcement, and our other common priorities.”

Israel’s ambassador to the United States, Michael Herzog, also welcomed the decision, describing it as a “significant milestone” in the bilateral relationship and expressing optimism that “our people-to-people ties, which are the backbone of our special relationship, will only grow stronger.”

The announcement follows a recent meeting between President Biden and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during the United Nations General Assembly, where both leaders pledged to continue their cooperation.

However, the decision has faced backlash from Arab-American civil rights advocates. A key requirement of the VWP is “reciprocity,” which entails that countries in the program must allow visa-free travel for American citizens in exchange for similar privileges for their own nationals traveling to the U.S.

Critics argue that Israel routinely denies entry to scores of U.S. and foreign nationals of Palestinian and other Arab descent, controlling access to the occupied Palestinian territories. For instance, in 2019, Israel blocked U.S. Congresswomen Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib from visiting based on their support for boycotting activities against Israel.

The Biden administration’s statement on Wednesday claimed that Israel had updated its entry policies to meet VWP requirements, pledging to extend reciprocal privileges to all U.S. citizens regardless of national origin, religion, or ethnicity.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken commented, “This important achievement will enhance freedom of movement for U.S. citizens, including those living in the Palestinian Territories or traveling to and from them.”

Despite these assurances, human rights advocates remain skeptical about Israel’s commitment to these promises. The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) has filed a lawsuit against Israel’s VWP designation, citing that Israel did not meet all the legal requirements for admission.

Abed Ayoub, the ADC’s executive director, criticized the Biden administration, stating, “With this decision, the U.S. government will be sending a message that not all American passport holders are equal.” He further accused the administration of endorsing Israeli discrimination and apartheid.

International experts and leading rights groups have also accused Israel of maintaining an apartheid system against Palestinians. Nevertheless, President Biden reiterated his unwavering support for Israel during his recent meeting with Prime Minister Netanyahu, emphasizing the vital importance of the U.S.-Israel relationship.

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