Jul 19, 2023 - World

U.S. and Israel agree on conditions that could see Israelis join visa waiver program

The flags of the U.S. and Israel. Photo: Artur Widak/NurPhoto via Getty Images

The U.S. and Israel on Wednesday signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) setting the conditions for Israel’s entry into the U.S. Visa Waiver Program.

Why it matters: It's a big step forward for Israel's bid to eventually become a part of the waiver program, which allows a country's citizens to travel to the U.S. for 90 days without first obtaining a visa.

  • Israel has for years wanted to join the program but the U.S. has expressed concerns over the Israeli entry restrictions that Palestinian-Americans from the occupied West Bank faced.

Details: The MOU will start a four-to-six-week review period during which Israel will implement a pilot program aimed at ensuring most Iranian, Palestinian and other Arab Americans are given equal treatment when traveling to or through Israel, according to Israeli officials.

  • After the review period, the U.S. will decide whether Israel is eligible to enter the waiver program, the sources said.

As part of the pilot program, Israel will allow Palestinian Americans from the West Bank, Iranian Americans and other Arab Americans to enter the country for 90 days without any background checks, according to Israeli officials and Israeli Foreign Ministry documents obtained by Axios.

  • Palestinian Americans who do not reside in the occupied territories will be able to freely enter Israel and the West Bank as tourists, according to the sources.
  • Palestinian Americans who reside in the West Bank will, however, have to use a special app in order to get an entry permit to Israel for 90 days.
  • Until now, many Palestinian Americans from the West Bank had to first travel to Jordan before entering the occupied territory. They also faced restrictions on entering Israel.

Israeli officials say the estimated 700 Palestinian Americans who reside in Gaza will face a more complex situation due to security concerns.

  • They will not be able to enter Israel directly from Gaza but will be able to do so through the Allenby border crossing between Israel and Jordan. Palestinian Americans from Gaza will be able to take a special shuttle run by the Palestinian Authority between Gaza and Jordan.
  • The pilot program will begin on Thursday, officials said.

What they're saying: Senior U.S. officials who briefed reporters said they welcome the Israeli decision to change the entry procedures to the country.

  • "We will continue working with the Israeli government and monitor the process of implementation," one of the officials said.
  • Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. Mike Herzog said that the MOU represents a "significant milestone towards Israel" joining the visa waiver program.

What’s next: A special team of the State Department and the Department of Homeland Security will arrive in Israel next week to begin monitoring the pilot program and review how Israel is implementing the MOU, the Israeli officials said.

  • "For entry into the Visa Waiver Program, the complete list of requirements must be satisfied," the State Department said.
  • If Israel stops implementing its commitments under the MOU at any point, the U.S. will be allowed to trigger a “snap back” mechanism and prevent Israelis from entering the U.S. without a visa, the sources said.

Editor's note: This story has been updated with additional details after the MOU was signed.

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