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policy shift

In bid for visa-free entry to U.S., Israel eases travel for Palestinian Americans

Israel’s announcement of its new policy marks a major shift after Department of Homeland Security officials told Congress last week that Israel does not yet meet requirements to join Washington’s Visa Waiver Program

Photo by Nir Keidar/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

TEL AVIV, ISRAEL - MARCH 27: A view of Ben Gurion Airport after flights were halted due to the strike against the government's plans for judicial reform, in Tel Aviv, Israel on March 27, 2023.

Israel and the United States took a major step on Wednesday toward making visa-free travel to America for Israelis a reality. 

Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. Michael Herzog, Department of Homeland Security Undersecretary Robert Silvers and U.S. Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides signed a memorandum of understanding to mark what Israel pledges will be a major policy shift: that it will allow all American citizens, including Palestinian Americans who live in the West Bank and Gaza, to travel through Israeli ports of entry. 

Israel’s announcement of its new policy, and its encouragement by Washington, marks a major shift after Department of Homeland Security officials told Congress last week that Israel does not yet meet requirements to join Washington’s coveted Visa Waiver Program. 

Based on previous peace agreements between Israelis and Palestinians, Palestinians were meant to enter the West Bank via Jordan and are not allowed to travel to Ben Gurion Airport. This means that Americans of Palestinian heritage have often faced long and onerous security procedures at Israel’s main point of entry.

Entry into the program has been a top priority for Israeli leaders for years, but it only became a real possibility in recent months after Israel hit other key thresholds that are required for membership in the program. The deadline for consideration in this cycle is Sept. 30, after which the U.S. must reassess Israel’s compliance with the statutory requirements. 

State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said Wednesday that the department “is working closely with the government of Israel in its efforts to meet [the] requirements.” He added that Washington “welcomes” today’s announcement, which “applies to all U.S. citizens, including Palestinian Americans on the Palestinian population registry.”

The policy change does not guarantee Israel’s entry into the program; American officials will monitor its implementation over the next month. But Israeli officials cheered the development.

“This is a significant development towards Israel joining the program,” Herzog said in a tweet.

Sens. Rick Scott (R-FL) and Jacky Rosen (D-NV), who last month led a letter with more than 60 bipartisan senators supporting Israel’s quick entry into the program, praised the move. 

“We look forward to that day and the increased travel and tourism it will bring between the United States and Israel which will serve to strengthen the bond between our great nations and people,” Scott and Rosen said in a statement.

Meanwhile, a group of four progressive senators, who have been arguing that Israel is far from ready to join the program this year, urged caution, questioning whether the changes will be successfully implemented by the Sept. 30 deadline. 

“While we welcome Israel’s efforts to make policy changes that move towards reciprocal treatment of all U.S. citizens, concerns remain about whether this will meet the ‘blue is blue’ requirement,” Sens. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), Jeff Merkley (D-OR), Brian Schatz (D-HI) and Peter Welch (D-VT) said in a statement. (“Blue is blue” refers to Washington’s requirement that all American citizens — with their trademark blue passports — be treated the same at Israeli airports.)

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