Israeli Entry Into U.S. Visa Waiver Program

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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October 3, 2023

On Wednesday, September 27, U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas and Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced Israel’s designation into the Visa Waiver Program (VWP). In line with the announcement, “the Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) will be updated to allow citizens and nationals of Israel to apply to travel to the United States for tourism or business purposes for up to 90 days without first obtaining a U.S. visa.” While this designation reflects a success for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government, several U.S. senators argued that “Israel has failed to meet requirements to treat all American travelers equally,” in particular Arab-Americans. 

Sources from across the region report on Israel’s admission to the program:

“The decision,” Al Arabiya writes, “is a win for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s religious-nationalist government, whose relations with Washington have been strained over its judiciary overhaul plan and its policies toward the Palestinians.” The article also quoted U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken as saying that the decision “will enhance freedom of movement for US citizens, including those living in the Palestinian Territories or traveling to and from them.”

The Visa Waiver Program “applies to 40 countries, largely from Europe, whose citizens are allowed to stay in the US for up to 90 days without a visa,” according to Al-Jazeera. The news source further explains that one of the key elements of eligibility is “reciprocity – the idea that foreign countries will treat all US citizens equally and without discrimination just as their nationals would be treated at American ports of entry.” Prior to Israel’s admission, “US and Israeli officials signed a memorandum of understanding to facilitate Israel’s entry” into the program, clarifying issues regarding plans for Israel’s compliance with reciprocity rules. 

The Jerusalem Post outlines the specifications surrounding this compliance issue: “Palestinian-Americans and Americans of Arab and Muslim backgrounds have long faced discrimination by Israeli authorities while traveling to and from the Jewish state. Palestinians are largely barred from using Ben Gurion Airport and are forced to fly in and out of neighboring Amman before crossing the Allenby Border Crossing between the West Bank and Jordan by foot, making the travel experience more lengthy and costly.”

“In a pilot period since July 20, Israel has eased access for Palestinian Americans through its borders and the Israeli-occupied West Bank” where “between 45,000 and 60,000 Palestinian Americans live,” Arab News notes. 

Despite these efforts, the designation has drawn concern from many individuals, including U.S. political leadership. As reported by The Times of Israel, prior to Israel’s admission, “a group of 15 Democratic senators penned a letter to US Secretary of State Antony Blinken…urging him not to admit Israel into the US Visa Waiver Program (VWP) at the end of the month, charging Israel has continued to discriminate against Palestinian-Americans, despite assurances that it would start treating all US travelers equally.” The letter criticizes the memorandum as serving “to green-light a ‘two-tiered system,’ since Palestinian-Americans will have to apply for travel permits via a system set up by Israel’s military liaison until May 2024 when Israel will have its electronic system for all US travelers up and running.” 

Israel National News shares that a number of groups, including the Democracy for the Arab World Now (DAWN) and the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC), “have called on the US Department of Homeland Security and State Department to suspend Israel’s entry into the Visa Waiver Program (VWP), until pending litigation alleging the program unlawfully discriminates against US citizens of Palestinian Arab origin is resolved.” It clarifies that DAWN and ADC “are plaintiffs in the lawsuit, filed in the Eastern District of Michigan, that seeks an injunction against the US government’s admission of Israel to the VWP.”

Following Israel’s designation into the Visa Waiver Program, Palestine’s Foreign Ministry advocated for its inclusion via a statement. Anadolu Agency quotes the request: “We expect from the American Administration to provide the same opportunities of freedom, equality, prosperity, and security for Palestinians, including visas procedures for exempting them from.”


  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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