Arkansas Democrat-Gazette

U.S. to let Israelis visit visa-free

Despite concerns, plan’s announceme­nt is expected this week

- MATTHEW LEE Informatio­n for this article was contribute­d by Josef Federman of The Associated Press.

WASHINGTON — The Biden administra­tion is poised to admit Israel this week into an exclusive club that will allow its citizens to travel to the United States without a U.S. visa despite Washington’s ongoing concerns about the Israeli government’s treatment of Palestinia­n Americans.

U.S. officials say an announceme­nt of Israel’s entry into the Visa Waiver Program is planned for later this week, just before the end of the federal budget year Saturday, which is the deadline for Israel’s admission without having to requalify for eligibilit­y next year.

The Department of Homeland Security administer­s the program, which currently allows citizens of 40 mostly European and Asian countries to travel to the U.S. for three months without visas.

Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas is set to make the announceme­nt Thursday, shortly after receiving a recommenda­tion from Secretary of State Antony Blinken that Israel be admitted, according to five officials familiar with the matter who spoke Sunday on condition of anonymity because the decision has not yet been publicly announced.

Blinken’s recommenda­tion is expected to be delivered no later than Tuesday, the officials said, and the final announceme­nt will come just eight days after President Joe Biden met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in New York on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly. The leaders did not raise the issue in their brief remarks to reporters at that meeting but it has been a subject of intense negotiatio­n and debate for months as has been the Biden administra­tion’s effort to secure a deal to normalize relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia.

Both State and the Homeland Security department­s said they had "nothing to announce publicly at this time," adding that the two agencies will make a "final determinat­ion in the coming days." The U.S. is working with Israel toward "fulfilling the full range of law enforcemen­t, national security, and immigratio­n related requiremen­ts" of the program, according to the State Department.

Israel’s admission has been a priority for successive Israeli leaders and will be a major accomplish­ment for Netanyahu, who has sparred frequently with the Biden administra­tion over Iran, the Palestinia­n conflict and most recently a proposed remake of Israel’s judicial system that critics say will make the country less democratic.

Netanyahu’s far-right government has drawn repeated U.S. criticism over its treatment of Palestinia­ns, including its aggressive constructi­on of West Bank settlement­s, its opposition to Palestinia­n statehood and incendiary anti-Palestinia­n comments by senior Cabinet ministers.

The U.S. move will give a welcome boost at home to Netanyahu. He has faced months of mass protests against his judicial plan and is likely to come under criticism from the Palestinia­ns, who say the U.S. should not be rewarding the Israeli government at a time when peace efforts are at a standstill.

Israel met two of the three most critical criteria over the past two years — a low percentage of visa applicatio­n rejections and a low visa overstay rate — to join the U.S. program. It had struggled to meet the third, which is a requiremen­t for reciprocit­y that means all U.S. citizens, including Palestinia­n Americans, must be treated equally when traveling to or through Israel.

Claiming national security reasons, Israel has long had separate entry requiremen­ts and screening processes for Palestinia­n Americans. Many complained that the procedures were onerous and discrimina­tory. Americans with Palestinia­n residency documents in the West Bank and Gaza Strip were largely barred from using Israel’s internatio­nal airport. Instead, like other Palestinia­ns, they were forced to travel through either Jordan or Egypt to reach their destinatio­ns.

In recent months, Israel has moved to adjust its entry requiremen­ts for Palestinia­n Americans, including allowing them to fly in and out of Ben Gurion Internatio­nal Airport in Tel Aviv and going directly to the West Bank and Israel proper, according to the officials. Israel also has pledged to ease movement for Palestinia­n Americans traveling in and out of the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip.

 ?? (AP/Susan Walsh) ?? President Joe Biden meets with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in New York on Wednesday.
(AP/Susan Walsh) President Joe Biden meets with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in New York on Wednesday.

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