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‘Long overdue,’ Israel is first in Middle East in US Visa Waiver Program 

Many are hailing Israel's admission as historic, while critics say that Washington's strict requirements could compromise Israeli security.

The Seattle-Tacoma International Airport in Washington state. Credit: Davslens/Shutterstock.
The Seattle-Tacoma International Airport in Washington state. Credit: Davslens/Shutterstock.

U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas announced on Wednesday that Israel has been admitted officially as the 41st nation in the U.S. Visa Waiver Program.

The announcement, which the secretary made in consultation with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, means that as of Nov. 30, Israelis will be able to visit the United States for fewer than 90 days without a visa.

“The designation of Israel into the Visa Waiver Program is an important recognition of our shared security interests and the close cooperation between our two countries,” Mayorkas stated.

“This designation, which represents over a decade of work and coordination between the United States and Israel, will enhance our two nations’ collaboration on counterterrorism, law enforcement and our other common priorities,” the secretary added. “Israel’s entry into the Visa Waiver Program, and the stringent requirements it entails, will make both of our nations more secure.”

Blinken said Israel’s admission “represents a critical step forward in our strategic partnership with Israel that will further strengthen long-standing people-to-people engagement, economic cooperation and security coordination between our two countries.”

“This important achievement will enhance freedom of movement for U.S. citizens, including those living in the Palestinian territories or traveling to and from them,” he added.

‘A significant milestone in the relationship’

The Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations welcomed Israel’s admission into the program and called the announcement “long overdue.”

“Israel’s entry into the Visa Waiver Program will bring tangible benefits to both American and Israeli citizens,” stated Harriet Schleifer and William Daroff, chair and CEO, respectively, of the Conference of Presidents.

“The relatives of Jewish Americans in Israel will no longer be forced to go through a lengthy, expensive and cumbersome process to visit their families,” the leaders added. “Additionally, Israel’s entry into the Visa Waiver Program reduces barriers to commerce between American and Israeli entrepreneurs, enhancing American firms’ competitiveness in key sectors such as AI and semiconductors.”

The two added that Israeli admission into the program is a first for a Middle East nation, which “is emblematic of the deeply-rooted partnership shared by the United States and Israel.”

Michael Herzog, the Israeli ambassador to the United States, called the announcement “a significant milestone in the relationship between Israel and the United States.”

“Our people-to-people ties, which are the backbone of our special relationship, will only grow stronger,” he said. “Israelis and Americans will be able to more freely travel between our two countries, interacting and connecting on a personal and professional level.”

The World Jewish Congress stated that the “vitally important” program “boosts homeland security, strengthens business ties, supports people-to-people connections and promotes cross-cultural understanding.”

AIPAC called Israeli admission to the program “a historic accomplishment that will further strengthen the ironclad partnership between America and Israel, benefiting both countries and ensuring the U.S.-Israel relationship remains strong for years to come.”

Security risks

Critics have noted that the U.S. terms for Israeli entry into the program put the Jewish state at risk by requiring it to tone down its security screening of Palestinian Americans, including those about whom it would otherwise have concerns.

Earlier this month, a U.S. State Department spokesman dismissed as “absurd” a question from a journalist about whether the United States would take the blame for the pressure it placed on Israel to gain entry to the program.

“What responsibility for an attack or attacks will the State Department take if someone headed into or out of Gaza exploits this new access and attacks Israeli citizens and tourists?” the reporter asked.

“I appreciate you coming and asking questions. I do think that’s a bit of an absurd framing of the question,” said spokesman Matthew Miller.

U.S. Jewish groups, including AIPAC, B’nai B’rith International and the American Jewish Committee, also downplayed the risk to Israel.

Morton Klein, national president of the Zionist Organization of America, told JNS last month that Israel has “unique security needs.”

“Over 70% of Palestinian Arabs support terrorism against Jews and seek to destroy the Jewish state,” he said. “Israel must thoroughly investigate whether Palestinian Americans who travel through its borders are part of a terrorist group or the BDS movement.”

Daroff, of the Conference of Presidents, told JNS that both Washington and Jerusalem put security concerns “front and center” in the negotiations.

“Obviously, neither country wants to admit visitors who are security risks. Israeli government officials assure me that every prospective entrant to Israel undergoes a thorough security check—regardless of whether they are required to have an entry visa,” Daroff said. “They uniformly do not foresee any increased security risk from Israel’s admission into the Visa Waiver Program.”

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