The United States announced on Wednesday that it will grant visa-free entry to Israelis, fulfilling a longstanding desire of its ally. This decision comes after a thorough evaluation concluded that Israel had taken steps to reduce discrimination against Arab Americans, although this assessment has been disputed by some lawmakers and activists.
Starting at the end of November, Israelis will join the ranks of citizens from many Western nations who do not require visas for visits of 90 days or less to the world’s largest economy.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu expressed his gratitude for this development, saying, “We have been working on this for years, almost a decade. I would like to express our appreciation to US President Joe Biden for his support of the initiative, which will further strengthen ties between the two peoples.”
The Biden administration’s decision followed Israel’s commitment in July to meet longstanding U.S. demands regarding the equal treatment of all U.S. passport holders, regardless of their Palestinian, Arab, or Muslim heritage. Visa-free travel is seen as a significant advancement in the strategic partnership between the United States and Israel, fostering people-to-people engagement, economic cooperation, and security coordination, according to Secretary of State Antony Blinken.
Blinken also noted that this initiative would improve the “freedom of movement” for U.S. citizens residing in or visiting the Palestinian territories.
A U.S. official briefing reporters emphasized that the decision was not a “favor” to Israel but rather a recognition of the progress made.
However, some members of Biden’s own Democratic Party had urged Secretary Blinken to delay the decision, pushing for more substantial changes to ensure equal treatment for all U.S. citizens.
Previously, Israel did not require visas for most Americans. Nevertheless, until the July agreement, Palestinian Americans seeking entry to the West Bank were required to cross via the Allenby Bridge with Jordan and were not allowed through Ben Gurion Airport, Israel’s main international gateway.
Several Democratic senators argued that further actions were necessary since U.S. citizens with Palestinian identification cards still faced restrictions, such as the inability to rent cars at Ben Gurion Airport and limitations at Israeli checkpoints.
The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee filed a lawsuit to prevent Israel’s entry into the visa waiver program, alleging that it would endorse discrimination against Palestinian and Arab Americans.
While welcoming easier travel for Israelis, J Street, a progressive pro-Israel group critical of Netanyahu, expressed concerns that U.S. requirements were being adjusted to accommodate Israel in a manner not extended to other countries.
U.S. officials noted that Israel met the demands by keeping the refusal rate for Americans seeking non-immigrant entry at 2.27 percent in the last fiscal year, within the target of a maximum of three percent. They also mentioned that the visa waiver status could be revoked if there is any regression in compliance.
In Tel Aviv, student Daniela Stein welcomed the development, as it allows her to travel on short notice with friends and family who do not have U.S. visas. She emphasized the opportunities this opens up for people to explore the United States.
Notably, nearly all Western nationals enjoy visa-free entry into the United States, including those from European Union member states, except Bulgaria, Cyprus, and Romania. Additionally, citizens from high-income Asian nations, such as Japan, South Korea, Singapore, Taiwan, and Brunei, also benefit from visa-free entry.
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