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‘Affirming Apartheid’: Biden to allow Israel into visa waiver programme

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Picture: US Embassy/Wikimedia Commons/March 2016 – Old friends, then-US Vice President Joe Biden with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Israel. One critic called it “an outrageous endorsement of the Israeli government’s systematic discrimination against Palestinian Americans and a reward to the most extremist, racist government in Israel’s history”, the writer says.

By Jessica Corbett

Human rights advocates on Wednesday forcefully denounced the Biden administration’s move to let Israelis apply to travel to the United States without visas, and vice versa, despite charges that Israel’s treatment of Palestinian Americans violates the programme’s legal requirements.

The US departments of Homeland Security and State confirmed that by November 30, “the Electronic System for Travel Authorisation (ESTA) will be updated to allow citizens and nationals of Israel to apply to travel to the United States for tourism or business purposes for up to 90 days without first obtaining a US visa”.

US Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas said that the designation of Israel into the Visa Waiver Programme (VWP) “represents over a decade of work and coordination,” and “is an important recognition of our shared security interests and the close co-operation between our two countries”.

While US Secretary of State Antony Blinken added that “this important achievement will enhance freedom of movement for US citizens, including those living in the Palestinian territories or traveling to and from them”, rights groups and some American legislators have been pushing back against such claims.

US Democratic Party senators Chris Van Hollen (D-Maryland) and Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), joined by over a dozen colleagues, wrote in a letter to Blinken earlier this month that according to a memorandum of understanding (MOU) signed in this summer, “Israel is not expected to fully implement one system that all US citizen travellers can use for purposes of visa waiver travel until May 1, 2024, well beyond the September 30, 2023 deadline for meeting programme requirements”.

“The MOU states that Israel will employ ‘an interim process for a US citizen who is a resident of the West Bank’. Such a two-tiered system of entry inherently violates the administration’s own standard for reciprocity that ‘blue is blue ’ — meaning ‘equal treatment and freedom of travel for all US citizens regardless of national origin, religion, or ethnicity,” the senators said. “We have already learned of a number of US citizen families who flew to Israel to take advantage of visa waiver travel under the new MOU who were denied entry for having Gaza IDs.”

Van Hollen and Schatz, along with Democrat senators Jeff Merkley (D-Oregan), and Peter Welch (D-Vermont), reiterated their concerns in a joint statement Wednesday, saying that “to date, Israel has failed to meet the ‘blue is blue’ requirement”. “Adherence to this important American tenet of reciprocity and equal treatment of all US citizens is critical to the integrity of the Visa Waiver Programme, and we are deeply concerned with the administration’s decision to move forward in violation of that principle.”

The Biden administration’s highly anticipated announcement follows a related lawsuit filed Tuesday by the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC), whose director, Abed Ayoub, said Wednesday that “by endorsing a tiered system for US citizens, our government has given its tacit approval to Israel’s prejudiced policies and apartheid actions”.

Especially faced with what is widely considered Israel’s most far-right government in the nation’s history — reaffirmed by stunts like Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu presenting a map of “The New Middle East” without Palestine during a speech to the United Nations General Assembly last week — a growing number of rights groups have accused Israel of apartheid.

Adalah Justice Project executive director Sandra Tamari declared Wednesday that “apartheid is not only Israeli policy, it is US policy too”.

“Israel’s discrimination is especially egregious against Palestinian Americans with ties to Gaza,” Tamari stressed, “making reunification of families torn apart by Israel’s siege and blockade of Gaza near impossible.”

Leaders from Americans for Justice in Palestine Action, American Muslims for Palestine, Council on American Islamic Relations, Jewish Voice for Peace Action (JVP Action), Muslim Public Affairs Council, the Jerusalem Fund for Education and Community Development, and the US Campaign for Palestinian Rights also denounced the Biden administration’s designation.

JVP Action executive director Stefanie Fox called it “an outrageous endorsement of the Israeli government’s systematic discrimination against Palestinian Americans and a reward to the most extremist, racist government in Israel’s history”.

“Once again, the US is singling out Israel for special and exceptionalised treatment at the expense of the rights of Palestinian Americans,” she added. “Jewish Voice for Peace Action calls for the immediate reversal of this decision.”

James Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute, suggested that “by choosing to make this reckless move ahead of the September 30, 2023 end of the federal fiscal year, it is also clear the issue of reciprocity was not the only barrier to Israel’s eligibility to enter the VWP.”

“Moving to admit them now so that an application would not have to restart under potentially different (and post-Covid) visa refusal rates—an additional requirement of the law—is another sign of the prioritisation of politics over our rights,” he continued. “With this move, Israel has extended its discriminatory apartheid laws to American citizens with our own government’s enthusiastic support.”

Democracy in the Arab World Now (DAWN) director of advocacy for Israel/Palestine Adam Shapiro, a plaintiff in ADC’s lawsuit, said Wednesday that “the US should halt implementation of the visa waiver for Israel at least until a judge reviews what we believe to be the government’s arbitrary and capricious actions that enshrine Israeli apartheid in a US programme”.

“Separate can never be equal, as was determined decades ago in the fight for civil rights in this country,” Shapiro added. “Forty countries participate in the VWP, and none have formal arrangements to discriminate against American citizens; only Israel has demanded and been granted this unconscionable favour by the US government.”

Jessica Corbett is a senior editor and staff writer for Common Dreams.