Chris Van Hollen, one of the leaders of the letter
Chris Van Hollen, one of the leaders of the letterReuters

A group of 16 US senators from the Democratic Party are urging the Biden administration to ensure that equal treatment of all US citizens – regardless of ethnicity, national origin and religion – is upheld within the Visa Waiver Program, as it considers Israel’s candidacy to join the coveted program.

The letter, sent on Wednesday and quoted by Haaretz, is the most significant Congressional missive to date expressing skepticism that Israel is currently eligible to enter the program. Acceptance of Israel into it would spare its citizens the time-consuming and expensive process of obtaining visas for US visits, allow for 90-day visits for tourism or business and catalyze economic cooperation.

The Biden administration, with outgoing US Ambassador to Israel Thomas Nides helming the matter, and successive Israeli coalitions have prioritized Israel’s entry to the program.

Under Nides’ stewardship, Israel reached several significant milestones in the process, including helping the refusal rate for tourist visa applications to fall to below the three percent benchmark set by the US State Department, while the Knesset finalized legislation allowing Israel to share biometric data with the US.

Nides has vowed that Israel will not be granted entry unless the condition of reciprocity, in which every US citizen will be allowed to travel freely to and from Israel, including Judea and Samaria, is met.

In Wednesday’s letter, the senators wrote, "As longtime supporters of the US-Israel relationship, we support Israel’s candidacy to join the VWP once it meets all of the requirements established by law."

"Each potential VWP member country faces different challenges, but all candidate countries must meet the standards for accession to the program. As Secretary of Homeland Security Mayorkas, Ambassador Nides and others in the Administration have repeatedly made clear, our standard is that 'blue is blue' — meaning 'equal treatment and freedom of travel for all US citizens regardless of national origin, religion, or ethnicity.' Based on past experience and current policies and practices, significant changes will be needed for Israel to come into compliance with this requirement," the senators added.

The letter was led by Sens. Chris Van Hollen and Brian Schatz and was addressed to US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas.

The lawmakers detailed various supposed violations of this "blue is blue" policy — including restrictions by the Israeli military on entry and exit requirements for dual US-Palestinian Arab citizens, ports of entry through which they are permitted entry and double standards for US citizens visiting Palestinian Authority-assigned territories in Judea and Samaria vs. Jewish communities in that area.

"None of the 40 countries currently participating in the Visa Waiver Program apply such discriminatory laws, policies and practices against certain groups of US citizens," they wrote, adding, "To date, however, we have seen no statements from the Government of Israel regarding actions or intentions to change current practices and policies that negatively impact US citizens on the basis of their religion, national origin, or ethnicity, especially in the case of Palestinian-Americans or Arab Americans."

They further added that "every country, of course, has the right to establish its own rules for the entry of foreigners. However, if a country wants the privilege of participating in our Visa Waiver Program, it does not have the right to discriminate against US citizens."

The letter marks the second time that Democratic senators have called to keep Israel out of the Visa Waiver Program. In June of last year, a group of progressive Democrats, including Reps. Rashida Tlaib and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez who are members of the so-called “Squad”, sent a similar letter.

(Israel National News' North American desk is keeping you updated until the start of Shavuot in New York. The time posted automatically on all Israel National News articles, however, is Israeli time.)