Sep 27, 2023 - World

In win for Bibi, U.S. allows Israel to join visa waiver program

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in January. Photo: Ronaldo Schemdit/AFP via Getty Images

Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas has decided to allow Israel to join the U.S. Visa Waiver Program, according to U.S. officials who briefed reporters.

Why it matters: The Biden administration's decision is a significant upgrade in relations between the U.S. and Israel, which has been trying to join the program for years.

  • It's also a major win for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a time when his far-right government is highly unpopular at home and facing criticism abroad.
  • As part of the program, citizens of Israel will be allowed to travel to the U.S. for 90 days without first obtaining a visa.
  • To join the program, Israel agreed to the unprecedented easing of restrictions on movement for Palestinian Americans who live in the occupied West Bank and Gaza and to ease restrictions placed on Arab and Iranian Americans who want to enter Israel.

Driving the news: Secretary of State Tony Blinken signed a letter earlier this week certifying that Israel has met the criteria set by the U.S. for joining the program and recommending Mayorkas make the designation.

  • The U.S. decision followed a more than two-month period in which the U.S. government reviewed the implementation of the new regulations toward Palestinian and other Arab Americans, as well as Iranian Americans by the Israeli authorities.
  • U.S. officials told reporters that the administration came to the conclusion that Israel met both the U.S. security criteria and the U.S. demand for reciprocity when it comes to the treatment of American nationals.

Details: Israeli citizens are expected to be allowed to enter the U.S. without a visa by Nov. 30, according to U.S. officials.

  • The Biden administration will continue to monitor the way Israel treats Palestinian Americans, other Arab Americans and Iranian Americans, the officials added, stressing the U.S. can suspend or remove a country from the program at any time if fails to comply with U.S. requirements.

What they're saying: "The designation of Israel into the Visa Waiver Program is an important recognition of our shared security interests and the close cooperation between our two countries," Mayorkas said in a statement on Wednesday.

  • "This designation, which represents over a decade of work and coordination between the United States and Israel, will enhance our two nations' collaboration on counterterrorism, law enforcement, and our other common priorities," he added.
  • Blinken called the designation "a critical step forward" in the U.S. strategic partnership with Israel "that will further strengthen long-standing people-to-people engagement, economic cooperation, and security coordination between our two countries."
  • "This important achievement will enhance freedom of movement for U.S. citizens, including those living in the Palestinian Territories or traveling to and from them," he added.

Netanyahu said in a statement: "Today we are marking an important and happy moment for all citizens of Israel."

Flashback: The initial breakthrough in the process of allowing Israel into the visa waiver program happened in 2021 under the Israeli government led by Naftali Bennett.

  • Former U.S. Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides and his deputy, Stephanie Hallett, pushed the issue very hard over the last year, mobilizing support for the move from Blinken, Mayorkas and the White House.
  • Netanyahu tried to sabotage the efforts while he was the leader of the opposition. But after returning to the prime minister's office late last year, he resumed the process of trying to get Israel into the program.

Behind the scenes: Three current and former U.S. told Axios that some within the administration worried during an internal debate on the issue several months ago that allowing Israel into the program would be seen as rewarding Netanyahu's government for behavior the U.S. is unhappy with, including settlement expansion and its judicial overhaul.

  • But Nides pushed back, arguing at the time that the move was in the U.S. interest because it would improve the situation for tens of thousands of Palestinian Americans who live in the West Bank and Gaza.
  • "This [decision] is not a favor to Israel," a U.S. official said in the briefing with reporters, echoing Nides' argument that the decision serves U.S. interests by improving security, increasing trade and tourism and allowing better access and movement for Palestinian Americans.

Yes, but: The move is already facing pushback.

  • A group of Democratic senators, who had expressed concerns about allowing Israel into the program at this time, released a statement reiterating their previous claim that Israel has failed to meet the requirement for equal treatment of all Americans.
  • "We are deeply concerned with the administration's decision to move forward in violation of that principle. We will carefully monitor the situation to determine whether Americans continue to face discrimination based on their ethnicity, national origin, or religion," Sens. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), and Peter Welch (D-Vt.) said.
  • A U.S. official told reporters that the administration is aware of the senators' concerns but stressed the administration reached a different conclusion regarding Israel meeting its requirements, especially regarding reciprocity.

Between the lines: A former U.S. official said the visa waiver process showed that when Netanyahu really wants something, he is willing to make significant concessions to get it.

  • The official added that this lesson will be important for the White House as it negotiates with Netanyahu the concessions he will have to make as part of any peace deal with Saudi Arabia

Go deeper: Bibi tells Biden that Palestinians can be part of Saudi mega-deal but can't have veto power

Editor's note: This story has been updated with Netanyahu, Blinken and Mayorkas' statements.

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