U.S. allows Israeli citizens to travel visa-free, joining a select group of countries

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WASHINGTON (AP) — The Biden administration is admitting Israel into a select group of countries whose citizens are allowed to travel to the United States without getting a visa in advance.

The decision announced Wednesday comes despite Washington’s concerns about the Israeli government’s treatment of Palestinian Americans and marks a major accomplishment for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has sparred frequently with the Biden administration.

Under the waiver program, as of Nov. 30, Israelis will be able to travel to the U.S. for business or leisure purposes for up to 90 days without a visa simply by registering with the Electronic System for Travel Authorization. But even if they are authorized to travel under that system, U.S. officials at the airport can still bar them from entering the country.

Israel had been facing a Saturday deadline, the end of the U.S. government’s budget year, to gain admission to the program without having to requalify for eligibility next year.

The Department of Homeland Security administers the program, which currently allows citizens of 40 mostly European and Asian countries to travel to the U.S. for three months without visas.

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Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said the agreement, after more than a decade of work, “will enhance our two nations’ collaboration on counterterrorism, law enforcement and our other common priorities” and make the allies more secure.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken, in a joint statement with Mayorkas, cited enhanced “freedom of movement for U.S. citizens, including those living in the Palestinian Territories or traveling to and from them.”

Israel’s admission has been a priority for successive Israeli leaders. It comes as Netanyahu is facing months of mass protests against his proposed remake of Israel’s judicial system that critics say will make the country less democratic.

“Today we mark an important and joyful moment for all citizens of Israel,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a statement. “This will save you, citizens of Israel a lot of time, a lot of trouble and a lot of money.”

He described the decision as “further evidence of the strong ties between Israel and the United States” and thanked President Joe Biden and other officials who helped make it possible.

Palestinian diplomats complained that the U.S. had allowed Israel into the program without the country fulfilling its commitments of equal treatment for Palestinian Americans. Palestinian advocacy groups have reported that even during the test phase of the visa waiver agreement, Palestinian Americans have faced discrimination and harassment by Israeli authorities at airports and checkpoints.

“At a time when the U.S. administration has repeatedly said that its goal is for Israel to provide the same opportunities of freedom, equality, prosperity and security for both Palestinians and Israelis, we expect the Biden administration to implement what it believes, works on and promises,” the Palestinian Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

Countries that want to take part in the visa program have to meet three critical benchmarks.

Israel met two of those benchmarks over the past two years: a low percentage of Israelis who applied for visas and were rejected and a low percentage of Israelis who have overstayed their visas. Israel had struggled to meet the third, for reciprocity that essentially means all U.S. citizens, including Palestinian Americans, must be treated equally when traveling to or through Israel.

Aside from the reciprocity requirement, which is disputed by some Palestinian American groups, a rejection of Israel would mean the country would have again had to meet U.S. standards for low rates of visa application refusals and visa overstays.

Israel had not met those criteria for years, but the numbers for both came down significantly in part due to coronavirus travel restrictions and an educational campaign in Israel sponsored by the U.S. Embassy and the Israeli government to discourage Israelis with questionable eligibility for visas from applying in the first place. Some officials said it was not clear whether Israel would have been able to meet those statistical standards in the next U.S. budget year.

Claiming national security reasons, Israel has long had separate entry requirements and screening processes for Palestinian Americans. Many complained that the procedures were onerous and discriminatory. Americans with Palestinian residency documents in the West Bank and Gaza Strip were largely barred from using Israel’s international airport. Instead, like other Palestinians, they were forced to travel through either Jordan or Egypt to reach their destinations.

U.S. officials have stressed that Israel’s status in the program will be constantly monitored and if it is seen to fall out of compliance, the special visa waiver status can be revoked.

But even before the announcement was official, the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee said it had filed a federal lawsuit aiming to stop Israel from being allowed into the program. The group claims that despite American assertions, Palestinian Americans were still facing discrimination when traveling to Israel.

Associated Press writer Isabel DeBre in Jerusalem and AP Diplomatic Writer Matthew Lee contributed to this report.

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