US visa
US visaiStock

A group of progressive Democrats, including Reps. Rashida Tlaib and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez who are members of the so-called “Squad”, are calling on the Biden administration to keep Israel out of the Visa Waiver Program due to its “disparate treatment” of Palestinian Americans trying to enter Palestinian Authority-assigned areas of Judea and Samaria, Haaretz reported on Thursday.

In a letter expected to be published Friday, lawmakers including but not limited to Reps. Tlaib, Ocasio-Cortez, Betty McCollum and Marie Newman tell US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas that updated entry guidelines recently published by the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT) “further complicates and formalizes previous written and unwritten entry restrictions and requirements for Americans wishing to visit, do business, reunite and reside with their Palestinian families, work or volunteer in those parts of the occupied West Bank under Palestinian Authority (PA) civil and security administration, or study or teach at Palestinian academic institutions.”

The lawmakers highlight the impact they say the 97-page “Procedure for Entry and Residence of Foreigners in Judea and Samaria Area” would have on US citizens in PA-assigned areas of Judea and Samaria compared to Israel.

“Such disparate treatment is particularly perplexing given that Israel is seeking admission to the US Visa Waiver Program (VWP), which requires Israel to extend the same treatment to American passport holders as Israeli nationals receive at US ports of entry,” they write, according to Haaretz.

They call Israel’s pattern of behavior at points of entry toward Arab and Muslim Americans “clearly ethnically-based discrimination.”

The lawmakers claim this has long been an issue, irrespective of the updated COGAT guidance, adding that Israel should be ineligible for entry into the VWP unless it ends “all ethnically, racially, religiously and politically based discrimination at its borders ... regardless of any purported ‘justification.’”

“Israel’s inclusion in the program would represent an endorsement of travel discrimination against American citizens by the federal government,” they state, adding that the State Department explicitly recognizes the existence of such non-reciprocal treatment and the frequent denial of entry for US citizens, as well as the existence of U.S. law prohibiting Israel from being singled out and granted entry into the VWP until it meets all requirements.

The lawmakers are requesting updates on whether Israel meets the legal requirements for inclusion in the VWP, how the United States has advised Israel to meet the reciprocity requirements, whether Israel provides the United States with information of denied visas, how the United States is ensuring Israel complies with steps ensuring its eligibility for the VWP, what benchmarks are used to prove Israel’s equal treatment of US citizens at points of entry, information-sharing between the United States and Israel, and whether or not Israel would be granted entry should it lower its rate of rejection but continue to prevent Palestinian Americans from traveling through Ben-Gurion Airport.

The letter comes amid progress in the process of adding Israel to the Visa Waiver Program.

The White House said last August, after a meeting between President Joe Biden and Prime Minister Naftali Bennett that Biden emphasized "his administration would strengthen bilateral cooperation with Israel in ways that would benefit both US citizens and Israeli citizens, including by working together towards Israel’s inclusion in the Visa Waiver Program."

In March, Public Security Minister Omer Barlev signed an agreement with the United States to share information on civilians convicted of serious criminal offenses.

As part of the process of Israel's entry into the Visa Waiver Program, Israel is required to meet a number of international thresholds that will allow it to enter the program. The information sharing agreement signed on Wednesday is one of those steps. As part of the information sharing, the two countries will be able to submit to each other about 1,000 queries a year about citizens convicted of serious criminal offenses.

The agreement was signed with Under Secretary of Homeland Security Robert Silvers, and in the presence of Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked.

If Israel is added to the VWP, Israelis would not be required to obtain a visa for a visit of up to three months in the United States.

Including Israelis in the Visa Waiver Program is an issue that Israel's Ambassador to the United Nations, Gilad Erdan, has been working on.

During a conversation with Mayorkas last year, Erdan stressed that he sees high importance in the inclusion of Israel in the program, and said that accepting Israel into the program would illustrate the special relations between the two countries and peoples.

In a subsequent post on Facebook, Erdan noted that a large majority of Israelis who apply for a visa and are refused are discharged soldiers who seek to visit the US after completing their IDF service and are refused a visa because US authorities mistakenly think they are seeking to settle in the country long term.