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Arab Americans and the Visa Waiver Program

Arab Americans and the Visa Waiver Program

Al-Ittihad, UAE, October 1

Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett concluded his visit to the United States last week, where he met with US President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken. Upon returning to Israel, Bennett spoke to the press and claimed that he is coming back with “full hands,” referencing different “gifts” he received from his American hosts. A US State Department spokesman said that Blinken and Bennett “agreed on the importance of including Israel in the Visa Waiver Program,” as an example of the promises Bennett received. But a statement by President Biden after the meeting made use of slightly more subtle language in reference to this point: “We will direct our efforts to work together toward Israel’s fulfillment of the requirements of the Visa Waiver Program.”  I was well prepared for Bennett to seek new aid commitments for Israel vis-à-vis Iran and win American silence on settlements and Palestinian human rights, but I was surprised by the reference to the Visa Waiver Program. I was hoping that the door to this idea was closed shut after the State Department made it clear in 2014 that Israel could not qualify for the program due to its treatment of Arab Americans, especially those of Palestinian origin, seeking to enter the country. One of the requirements of the Visa Waiver Program is a clear commitment to reciprocity. This means ensuring that Israel treats all American citizens reciprocally when they enter its territory, as the United States is committed to doing toward all Israeli citizens. In 2014, a US State Department spokesperson justified the refusal to allow Israel to enter the Visa Waiver Program based on the fact that the United States remained “concerned about the asymmetric treatment that Palestinian Americans and Americans of other Middle Eastern origins at Israel’s borders and checkpoints.” This is because many Arab Americans, even those born in the United States, continue to face obstacles when attempting to enter Israel with their US passports. Some have been told that Israel does not recognize their US passports or citizenship and considers them Palestinians, thereby requiring them to obtain a Palestinian identity card, and enter Israel through the Allenby Bridge land crossing from Jordan. Over the years, hundreds of protests have been lodged with the State Department that cited harassment of Arab American citizens, in clear violation of the 1951 Israeli-American agreement that obligates Israel to allow American citizens to “travel freely” and to ensure their “most committed safety and protection.” Several administrations responded to these concerns – including that of President Bill Clinton – and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright raised the issue with her Israeli counterpart. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice issued a strongly worded statement affirming that “an American citizen is an American citizen,” and demanded similar treatment for all US tourists after learning of reports about harassment of Palestinians with American citizenship. However, nothing was done to modify this treatment until 2014, when the State Department denied Israel’s application to enter the Visa Waiver Program on the basis of its unequal treatment of Arab Americans. It amazes me that Israel, without any policy changes, continues to pursue inclusion in the program. I had hoped that Biden’s mention of “Israel’s fulfillment of the requirements of the Visa Waiver Program” would be accompanied by the necessity of similar treatment of all US citizens. But we will still demand, as American citizens, the right to equal protection under the law at home and abroad. Israel should respect our rights as Americans, and our government should respect those rights. The journey to protect these rights is far from over. – James Zogby (translated by Asaf Zilberfarb)

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