Sep 8, 2023 - World

Scoop: Senate Dems call on Blinken to stop Israel visa waiver

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

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

A group of Democratic senators sent a letter to Secretary of State Tony Blinken on Friday asking him not to move forward with admitting Israel into the Visa Waiver Program, claiming the country will not fully meet the criteria for admission by the Sept. 30 deadline, according to a copy of the letter obtained by Axios.

Driving the news: The U.S. and Israel in mid-July signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) setting the conditions for Israel's entry into the U.S. Visa Waiver Program, which allows a country's citizens to travel to the U.S. for 90 days without first obtaining a visa. The MOU was a big step forward for Israel's bid.

  • Since then, Israel has been going through a pilot program during which the State Department and the Department of Homeland Security are reviewing and scrutinizing the implementation of the new regulations toward Palestinian Americans by the Israeli authorities.
  • By the Sept. 30 deadline, Blinken and Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas must decide whether Israel has met the conditions to enter the program.
  • U.S. and Israeli officials tell Axios that at the moment, Blinken and Mayorkas plan to certify Israel has met the requirements and move forward with the process of admitting the U.S. ally into the program.

What they're saying: In the letter sent to Blinken, the senators wrote that they still have "serious concerns" about admitting Israel into the program.

  • The senators said that according to the MOU, Israel will only have to fully implement one system for all U.S. citizen travelers by May 1, 2024, well beyond the September 30, 2023, deadline.
  • If Israel cannot fully comply with the reciprocity requirements of the Visa waiver program by the Sept. 30 deadline, "it can spend the following twelve months coming into full compliance," they wrote.
  • "There is no provision in law that provides that a visa waiver country can discriminate against certain groups of U.S. citizens for the first seven months of the program simply because a country claims they will treat all U.S. citizens equally for the last five months of the fiscal year," the senators said.
  • "It would be a violation of law to rush to admit a country that does not meet a key requirement of the program in one year simply because it may not be able to comply with a different requirement the following year."

Additionally, the senators wrote that U.S. citizens who reside in the occupied West Bank will have to use "a two-tiered system of entry," which violates the Biden administration's own standards for reciprocity.

  • The senators said that according to reports they received, Palestinian Americans who reside in the West Bank can't drive their cars into Israel and some Palestinian Americans were not allowed to rent cars at Ben Gurion airport after landing in Israel.
  • "If the U.S. were to reciprocate, it would mean that certain groups of Israelis like, for example, those living in settlements on the West Bank, would not be permitted to rent cars upon arrival in the United States, or would be otherwise given different treatment," the senators argued.

The Senators urged Blinken "to verify and certify" that Israel is in full compliance with equal treatment requirements "prior" to its admission into the visa waiver program and not after the program has been initiated.

  • "While we very much hope that Israel will meet all the requirements at some future date, its entry into the program cannot come at the expense of the 'Blue is Blue' principle and the requirement of reciprocity for all U.S. citizens," they wrote.
  • The letter was initiated by Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) and signed by Sens. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), Tammy Baldwin (D-Wisc.), Tom Carper (D-Del.), Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.), Ed Markey (D-Mass.), Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), Jack Reed (D-R.I.), Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Peter Welch (D-Vt.), Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), and Tina Smith (D-MN).
  • The State Department did not respond to Axios' questions about the letter.

State of play: As part of the pilot program, Israel agreed to allow Palestinian Americans from the West Bank, Iranian Americans and other Arab Americans to enter the country for 90 days without any background checks.

  • Most Palestinian Americans who do not reside in the occupied territories are allowed to freely enter Israel and the West Bank as tourists.
  • 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.
  • The estimated 700 Palestinian Americans who reside in Gaza face a more complex situation.
  • 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.

According to Israeli officials, more than 12,000 Palestinian Americans residing in the occupied West Bank entered Israel as part of the new regulations in the last two months. Several thousand Palestinian Americans who reside in the U.S. used the new regulations to land at Ben Gurion airport.

  • There are between 50,000 and 70,000 U.S. citizens who reside in the West Bank, according to an Israeli assessment.

What to watch: The senators asked for a phone call with Blinken as soon as possible to discuss the issue.

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