Democrat senators concerned over Israel joining US visa waiver programme
A group of 16 Democratic senators have expressed concern to the Biden administration over plans to admit Israel onto its visa waiver programme in the coming months.
In their five-page letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas, copied to US Ambassador to Israel Thomas Nides, the senator said Israel is far from meeting the requirements for joining the visa waiver programme later this year. The programme would allow Israelis visa-free access to the United States.
The senators specifically refer to the issue of reciprocity, which would mean equal treatment for all US citizens entering Israel and the occupied territories. Israel is yet to grant free passage for Palestinian-Americans at its airports and into the occupied West Bank.
"We appreciate the Administration's stated position that, to be eligible for the Visa Waiver Program, Israel must meet the requirements of reciprocity and equal treatment for all US citizen travellers to Israel and/or the West Bank," reads the letter.
"To date, however, we have seen no statements from the Government of Israel regarding actions or intentions to change current practices and policies that negatively impact US citizens on the basis of their religion, national origin, or ethnicity, especially in the case of Palestinian-Americans or Arab Americans," the letter continues.
The letter concludes by requesting the top administration officials answer questions regarding equal treatment of US citizens of all ethnicities travelling to Israel and the West Bank; what mechanisms they have in place to monitor compliance with the rules of the visa waiver programme in reciprocity; and how a country could be removed if it does not comply with the laws of reciprocity.
The deadline for Israel to meet the requirements for entry into the visa waiver programme is 30 September.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in March that he expected his country to join the programme soon as related legislation moved through the Knesset.
But the US State Department said Israel had not yet met the eligibility requirements, pointing to the lack of free passage for Palestinian-Americans.