A group of 20 Democratic members of Congress called on the Biden administration this week to oppose Israel’s membership in the US Visa Waiver Program, Haaretz reported Friday.
The program would waive the current onerous requirements faced by Israelis when they want to visit the United States and would instead automatically authorize 90-day visits for business or tourism purposes.
But Representative Don Beyer sent a letter Thursday – signed together with 19 other Democrats – telling Secretary of State Antony Blinken, “It is clear that Israel cannot and should not be admitted into the visa waiver program under the status quo.”
Israel has been negotiating with the United States over this issue for more than a year.
Last month Knesset lawmakers voted to approve the first reading of a bill that would allow Israel to join the program. Under the bill, sponsored by the Justice Ministry, passenger data gathered by airlines during the reservation process are coded into a “passenger name record” (PNR) which would then be transferred to a national center to be set up at the Israel Tax Authority – and is a condition set by the US for Israel’s entry into the visa waiver program.
Last month Department of Homeland Security Assistant Secretary for Legislative Affairs Alice Lugo said Israel “does not currently meet all [program] designation requirements, including extending reciprocal visa-free travel privileges to all US citizens and nationals.”
Lugo was referring to Israeli security personnel at Ben Gurion International Airport who pay close attention to Palestinian Authority Arabs who hold US citizenship and others, particularly so-called “peace activists” and supporters of the Boycott, Divest and Sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel.
The rejection rate goes both ways, however: young Israeli military veterans typically travel after completing their mandatory service. However, the United States often rejects their requests for visas, citing a lack of income and steady employment that would ensure their return home.
“Israel must extend reciprocal privileges to all US citizens and nationals, including Palestinian Americans, as those the United States would extend to Israeli citizens,” said a spokesperson for the US Embassy in Jerusalem quoted by Haaretz.
“We seek equal treatment and freedom to travel for all such US travelers to Israel regardless of national origin or ethnicity.”
An official at the embassy told Haaretz, however, that there is a difference between the visa waiver program requirements and requests by Palestinian Authority Americans who request long-term Israeli permits for work, study, and other reasons.
“The US Visa Waiver Program is only for up to 90-day stays,” the official said, adding “the long-term COGAT (Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories) permits relate to work, study and other types of longer-term travel.”
Last year, Israeli Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked met with Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas to discuss the issue.
Following the meeting, Shaked said she hoped the issue could be resolved within two years.
“We are both determined to promote the exemption from visas for Israelis,” she said. “There are some obstacles, but we will know how to overcome them.
“If we succeed, by early 2023 we will be able to say goodbye to the queues at the US Embassy,” she wrote in a tweet.
However, Congress members led by Representative Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) have been fighting against Israel’s membership in the visa waiver program for more than a year. Tlaib and her colleagues sent a letter to Blinken and Mayorkas this past June, arguing against Israel’s inclusion in the program.
The letter, obtained by the Jewish Insider news outlet, said Israel’s “discriminatory policies” disqualified the Jewish State from joining the program.
“The Administration’s continued work to include Israel in the VWP is deeply troubling given that Israel appears to be, as the Institute for Middle East Understanding notes, patently ineligible due to its flagrant discrimination against Palestinian, MENA, Muslim and pro-Palestinian American citizens at its points of entry,” Tlaib wrote in a cover note to colleagues soliciting signatures for the letter, JI reported.
In her cover letter, Tlaib also referred to “US charities that are funding and providing direct support to Israeli organizations that are working to expand and perpetuate Israel’s illegal settlement enterprise in violation of international law, including supporting the dispossession and forced displacement of Palestinians from occupied East Jerusalem neighborhoods.
“The activities of these organizations clearly violate US obligations under international law, as well as federal tax law, rendering them ineligible for 501(c)(3) status,” she claimed.
Tlaib has long led the vanguard of lawmakers who support the BDS campaign against Israel and who claim Israel is an “apartheid state.”
Did you know organizations funding illegal Israeli settlements currently get tax exempt status, in clear violation of international law AND US federal tax law? Treasury Dept. @SecYellen must act to enforce US law and end these organizations 501(c)(3) status. pic.twitter.com/WVfv5bx2mE
— Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib (@RepRashida) July 22, 2021
The anti-Israel contingent in the Congress is not only fighting Israel’s inclusion in the waiver program: they are fighting any possible support for Israel, be it governmental or private.
Last year, members of the anti-Israel Democratic “Squad,” including Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), Cori Bush (D-MO), Andre Carson (D-IN), Betty McCollum (D-MN), Mark Pocan (D-WI), Ayanna Pressley (D-MA) and Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) sent a letter to Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen demanding she revoke the tax-exempt status of pro-Israel Jewish charities if some of their funding is awarded to Jews in Judea, Samaria and post-1967 areas of Jerusalem.
In the July 22, 2021 letter, Tlaib and her colleagues claimed, (as seen in the above tweet) the groups are “organizations funding illegal Israeli settlements currently get tax exempt status, in clear violation of international law AND US federal tax law.”