The Netanyahu government has just pulled off a major diplomatic victory, reaching a longtime goal toward upgrading US-Israel relations.
US Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas has agreed to Israel’s entry into the US Visa Waiver Program, which means that for the first time Israeli citizens will be able to travel to the United States visa-free. It will take effect Nov. 30, according to US officials.
“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,” Mayorkas said in Wednesday statement confirming Israel’s upgraded status.
And Secretary of State Antony Blinken hailed the designation as “a critical step forward” in the US strategic partnership with Israel “that will further strengthen long-standing people-to-people engagement, economic cooperation, and security coordination between our two countries” – as quoted in Axios.
“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,” he added, in reference to reciprocity. Israel will now allow US passport holders visa-free travel in return, including theoretically Palestinian-Americans.
However, Arab groups and Palestinian activists have charged that Israel has failed to change its entry policies in practice, and that it will still discriminate against Palestinians, even if they are US citizens. According to Al Jazeera:
On Tuesday, the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) said it had filed a lawsuit against Israel’s VWP designation. “Credible reports and ADC’s own investigations have shown that Israel failed to meet all of the legal requirements for admission,” the group said.
Abed Ayoub, the ADC’s executive director, told Al Jazeera earlier this week that by letting Israel into the programme, the Biden administration “has endorsed and embraced Israeli discrimination and apartheid”.
“With this decision, the US government will be sending a message that not all American passport holders are equal,” Ayoub said.
This significant step in US-Israel relations comes after last week President Biden and PM Netanyahu met on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York.
Relations have been on the rocks, given the controversial judicial reform initiative in Israel, and the fact that Netanyahu was never invited to the White House after being sworn in again as prime minister. Netanyahu took it as a personal affront, but this Visa Waiver Program upgrade is being seen as a breakthrough.