US Visa Waiver Agreement Ignores Israel’s History of Unruly Behavior
The decision by the US government to advance Israel’s enrollment in the US Visa Waiver Programme by signing a memorandum of understanding with that country shouldn’t have come as a shock to the Arab-American community. Still, it did. They had received assurances from various Biden administration officials for months that Israel couldn’t fulfill the program’s requirements. Concerns centered on the law’s specific requirement that participating countries guarantee full reciprocity to US citizens seeking entry, regardless of their race, religion, or national origin.
This MOU essentially ignores Israel’s long history of treating Arab Americans—especially Palestinian Americans—discriminatorily when they attempt to enter or leave Israel or the Palestinian territories.
Israel routinely disregards American passports, as well as the rights of Arab Americans and Americans exercising their First Amendment rights to free speech in support of Palestinian rights (which ensure religious freedoms). This has been well-documented. These American citizens claim that Israeli authorities have harassed, detained, and outright refused entry. Arab Americans have been subjected to strip searches, prolonged questions about their family and property histories, and even coerced into giving access to their social media accounts during these incidents.
For months, representatives of the Biden administration insisted that before Israel could be admitted, it had to fulfill all of the program’s 40 other requirements, including reciprocity. However, even though Israel’s behavior has not changed visibly since the most recent push to include it in the program began two years ago, the US has signed this MOU. In fact, as part of its “Co-ordination of Government Activities in the Territories” (Cogat) regulations, Israel has since imposed even more onerous restrictions on visiting Palestinian Americans.
The restrictive Cogat procedures in Israel are kept in place for some US citizens for at least a year under the version of the MOU that has been circulated. For Americans entering the West Bank, these procedures add another onerous, brief visa process. Cogat still applies to US citizens who are West Bank residents until May 2024, when the visa waiver program will “be made available to them,” despite the MOU’s terms stating that Cogat is superseded by the MOU.
Even after the program’s entry procedures have been fully adopted, the MOU makes no mention of them becoming the default for US citizens living in the West Bank. Furthermore, the Cogat regulations apply to travel to the Palestinian Territories, but what if a Jewish American visits an Israeli settlement in the West Bank?
According to the MOU, the US gives Israel the freedom to refuse entry to foreigners due to vague security concerns, a power that Israel has far too frequently abused in the past.
The US government announced a month ago that there would be a 30-day test to see if Israel would implement non-discriminatory visitor policies. Arab-American activists mocked this proposal, pointing out that they needed more tangible proof of change after suffering abuse from Israeli border guards for fifty years.
Recent evidence of the Biden administration’s frustration with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s policies served to strengthen their belief that the US government was paying attention to their concerns. The US has urged Israel to stop building settlements, but they have already announced 5,000 more. However, despite US pressure, home demolitions and settler violence persist. The US urged them to stop conducting provocative raids, but last year, American citizen Shireen Abu Akleh was killed by Israeli forces during a raid.
Therefore, it was assumed that President Joe Biden’s administration wanted to send a message to Mr. Netanyahu and his coalition when he called Mr. Netanyahu’s government “one of the most extremist” in Israel’s history and continued to put off inviting the prime minister to a meeting in the US. However, his administration made announcements about the MOU signing and a meeting with Mr. Netanyahu earlier this month.
Since the US has a habit of rewarding Israel’s bad behavior, it has given them a false sense of impunity and fueled the very extremism that Americans claim to be worried about.
The MOU that is currently circulating raises serious concerns.
The official MOU hasn’t been released yet; instead, different sources and news organizations have shared versions of it. Why hasn’t the MOU been made public yet by the Biden administration? How many of the 40 countries currently participating in the program, as described in the Israeli statement, have required a “reciprocity outline”?
Even though other nations have signed MOUs about the program’s increased security, according to an initial review, there hasn’t been a single MOU for a nation that offers visa waivers that redefined reciprocity to permit different treatment of Americans depending on their race or country of origin. According to the law, reciprocity is necessary. Redefining reciprocity in an MOU would not be necessary if Israel complied with the legal requirements and thus the visa waiver program.
The following is also stated on page one of Annex A of the MOU: “Israel’s regulations state that discrimination, defined as the unfavorable treatment of a person, or group of persons, based on several factors, including their national origin, religion, or ethnicity, is unacceptable.” The MOU permits Israel to redefine reciprocity to suit its needs, even though it claims to be a roadmap to “clarify” reciprocity and permits declarative statements that defy reality.
The administration will choose to give up the rights of Arab-American citizens with this MOU to benefit Israel politically. This choice represents a failure on the part of the US government to fulfill its obligations to its people.