A group of 15 Democratic senators are calling on the Biden administration to not accept Israel into the US Visa Waiver Program, claiming it is not abiding by its commitment to grant equal treatment to Palestinian Americans wishing to enter the country, Haaretz reports.
In a letter they sent to Secretary of State Antony Blinken, the senators wrote that they were requesting an urgent meeting with him before the official date for adding Israel to the program, at the end of this month.
The senators claimed in their letter to Blinken that Israel continues to discriminate against Palestinian Arabs holding US citizenship at its entry ports, thereby violating the commitments it made as a condition for joining the visa waiver program.
Among other points, the senators note that Palestinian Americans living in Palestinian Authority-assigned areas of Judea and Samaria have to enter Israel on foot, since they are prohibited from driving into the country.
The senators also claim that Israel makes it difficult for Americans of Palestinian Arab descent to rent a car at Ben-Gurion International Airport for their stay in Israel.
The letter was initiated by Sen. Chris Van Hollen, who is considered one of the main critics of the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu among the Democrats. Other signatories include Sens. Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and the head of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Dick Durbin.
The Democratic senators wrote Blinken that the administration should not allow Israel to join the Visa Waiver Program based on a promise to desist from discrimination in a few months, but should insist on an immediate halt to this practice.
In their letter, the senators compared Israel’s conduct to a theoretical situation in which the U.S. would deny some Israelis visiting the country the right to drive or rent a car during their visit. They called on the Biden administration to insist that Israel acts equitably toward any American citizen arriving there, or to deny Israel admission to the program.
Negotiations over this issue began during the previous government’s term and have picked up steam in recent months.
Under the stewardship of former US Ambassador to Israel Thomas Nides, 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.
Friday’s letter marks the second time in recent months that a group of senators from the Democratic Party have urged the Biden administration not to allow Israel into the Visa Waiver Program before it ensures that equal treatment of all US citizens – regardless of ethnicity, national origin and religion – is upheld.
A US State Department spokesperson told Haaretz that "Israel’s entry into the program depends on it meeting all VWP requirements, including the requirement to extend reciprocal privileges to all U.S. citizens without regard to national origin, religion, or ethnicity."
The State Department spokesperson added, "We continue to analyze aggregate data provided by Israel, and U.S. Embassy Jerusalem has established a portal accessible via its website where U.S. citizens may report their travel experiences. We encourage all US citizens to share their experiences."
"At the same time, the United States has and will continue to engage with the Palestinian-American, Arab-American, and Muslim-American communities, as we review Israel’s implementation of the VWP requirements, including reciprocity. "