Israel’s Problem with US Visa Waiver Program: Respecting Arab American Rights

In late August, Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett returned home after meetings with US President Joseph Biden and Secretary of State Anthony Blinken saying his "arms were full" — his upbeat way of describing the "goodies" he received from his American hosts. One of these "gifts" was mentioned by the State Department's spokesperson who noted that Blinken and Bennett "agreed on the importance of working toward Israel's inclusion in the Visa Waiver Program (VWP) in order to benefit both US citizens and Israeli citizens." Biden's statement, following the White House meeting, also mentioned this issue using language that was more qualified: "We're also going to direct our teams to work toward Israel fulfilling the requirements of the Visa Waiver Program and get that done."

I had been fully prepared for Bennett to secure new US commitments regarding aid and Iran, and US silence on settlements and Palestinian human rights, but was troubled by the mention of the VWP. I had hoped that we had succeeded in putting that matter to rest in 2014 when the State Department made it clear that Israel could not qualify for the program because of its treatment of Arab Americans, especially, but not exclusively, those of Palestinian descent seeking entry into the country.

One of the provisions of the VWP is that each admitted country demonstrate commitment to reciprocity — which for Israel means guaranteeing that all American citizens are treated equally at entry, just as the US would be committed to treat all Israeli citizens. Back in 2014, in explaining its reasons for denying Israel entry into the VWP, the State Department spokesperson noted that "the Department of Homeland Security and State remain concerned with the unequal treatment Palestinian Americans and other Americans of Middle Eastern origin experience at Israel's border and checkpoints, and reciprocity is the most basic condition of the VWP.”

Israel's discriminatory treatment of American citizens of Arab descent has been a consuming passion of mine for more than four decades. While running the Palestine Human Rights Campaign in the 1970s, I handled dozens of cases of Palestinian Americans who were unable to visit their families because they were denied entry at Israel's borders. The treatment they received was abusive and often humiliating and degrading. Sometimes they were detained for long periods. The problem continued into the following decades, with a new twist after the signing of the Oslo Agreement and the creation of the Palestinian Authority. Harassment and abuse of Arab Americans continued at Ben Gurion Airport, but Palestinian Americans, even those born in the US, were now confronted by a new obstacle to entry. They were told that Israel didn't recognize their American passport or citizenship. In Israel's view they were Palestinians and therefore were required to secure a Palestinian ID and could only enter using the Allenby Bridge from Jordan.

During all these years, we protested to the State Department noting that Israel's systematic discrimination against US citizens of Arab descent was in clear violation of the 1951 US-Israel treaty in which Israel commits to permit US citizens the right to "travel freely, to reside at places of their choice, to enjoy liberty of conscience" and to guarantee them "the most constant protection and security."

Several administrations have been responsive to our concerns. President Bill Clinton provided me with the opportunity to directly challenge Israeli PM Ehud Barak on this issue. Secretary Madeleine Albright raised it with her Israeli counterpart, and upon receiving our reports of Israel's discriminatory behavior toward and denigration of the US citizenship of Palestinian Americans, Secretary Condoleezza Rice issued a strong statement insisting that "an American citizen is an American citizen," demanding that all of us be treated equally.

But other than words of condemnation and a State Department "travel advisory" that warns that "US citizens whom Israeli Authorities suspect of being of Arab, Middle Eastern, of Muslim origin...may face additional, often time-consuming, and probing questioning by immigration and border authorities, and may be denied entry"— nothing had been done to correct this flagrantly discriminatory treatment. Nothing, that is, until 2014, when the State Department based its denial of Israel's request to enter the VWP on their "unequal treatment" of American citizens of Arab descent.

Given this background, I was stunned to hear that Israel, without any changes in their policies, is still trying to get into the program. I was somewhat hopeful with President Biden saying that the US will be working "toward Israel fulfilling the requirements of the VWP" — hoping, that is, that he was referring to the need for reciprocity.

Nevertheless, whatever the President meant, we will continue to demand that as American citizens we have the right to equal protection under the law — at home and abroad. If Israel won't respect our rights, as Americans, then our own government must. This journey is not over.

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