columnU.S.-Israel Relations

Did Israel sacrifice security for visa waivers?

U.S. pressure led Jerusalem to give up singling out Arabs with U.S. citizenship for special scrutiny. Does the debate about “ethnic profiling” ignore threats?

Passengers at the arrival hall in the Ben-Gurion International airport near Tel Aviv on July 11, 2023. Photo by Chaim Goldberg/Flash90.
Passengers at the arrival hall in the Ben-Gurion International airport near Tel Aviv on July 11, 2023. Photo by Chaim Goldberg/Flash90.
Jonathan S. Tobin. Photo by Tzipora Lifchitz.
Jonathan S. Tobin
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him @jonathans_tobin.

It sounds eminently fair. Add in the fact that it will give Israeli citizens something they’ve been trying to get for many years, and it seems like a win-win sort of deal between Washington and Jerusalem. But there’s no use pretending that Israel’s agreement to treat all U.S. passport holders in the same manner, rather than singling out those who are also Palestinian Arabs for special scrutiny, doesn’t also present genuine risks for the country’s security.

Making this change was the price that the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had to pay in order to get the United States to change its own entry policies for Israeli citizens. Up until now, Israel was denied the privilege extended to 40 other countries, mostly in Europe and Asia.

Given the popularity of travel between Israel and the United States, coupled with the fact that the two nations are allied and share so many common values and concerns, the reality of the Jewish state not being on that list remains something of an anomaly. But Israel insisted on having the right to bar some U.S. citizens who were Arabs and, as a matter of course in its vital approach to security, was thus treated differently. That meant that even an administration led by a president as historically friendly to Israel as Donald Trump refused to grant the visa waiver.

The reason for this is the claim that Palestinian Arabs are discriminated against by Israeli authorities. They complained of harassment, extensive and intrusive personal searches, and interrogations. Such complaints have been a regular feature of anti-Zionist publications and left-wing Israeli newspapers like Haaretz, where those labeling themselves as Palestinian Americans say that they are treated like criminals when seeking to enter the Jewish state, if they are allowed to visit at all.

At the heart of this dispute are the very real differences in the approach to security, especially concerning air travel, taken by the two countries. While a policy of so-called racial profiling is merely a part of Israeli practice rather than its entirety, there is no question that an unwillingness to treat everyone the same is at the heart of Jerusalem’s efforts to keep terrorists from boarding Israeli planes or entering the country.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security is at pains to make clear that it does not countenance profiling by group identity. Israel, by contrast, has no such compunctions. Indeed, its unabashed embrace of some forms of profiling prompted Trump to publicly call for America to embrace the Jewish state’s methods when he was running for president in 2016, though he was never able or willing to act on that belief. Trump’s point was based on the widely acknowledged reality that Israeli security is more rigorous and more successful than that of other nations. There hasn’t been a hijacking of an Israeli plane since 1968 or one on any civil aviation target there since the 1972 mass shooting at Ben-Gurion International Airport. Few, if any, other nations can boast of such a record—a result that is all the more remarkable because Israel remains the top target of international terrorists committed to its destruction.

Israelis, as well as those who travel there regularly, are used to putting up with a great deal of security measures. But they largely accept it as a reasonable price to pay for safety.

The U.S. Transportation Security Administration (TSA) relies on treating everyone alike when it comes to looking for potential terrorists. The result, as anyone who has boarded a commercial-airline flight in the last quarter century knows, are restrictions and security measures that rely on annoying passengers with regulations that can seem foolish (removing shoes or containers with more than a small amount of liquid because of singular failed terrorist attacks in the past) or random checks that reflect a lack of common sense or any real interest in averting a crime.

In contrast, Israeli security personnel hone in on the people most likely to be terrorist suspects and don’t worry about the perception that they’re being unfair to Palestinians or anyone else who may seem a threat.

Yet it’s a mistake to assume, as perhaps Trump did, that Israeli security is purely a matter of group profiling. To the contrary, Israel has long relied on sophisticated behavioral analysis, reading eye movements and body language as people respond to questions to try to filter out potential risks.

Those tasked with defending Israel understand that terror groups don’t solely rely on Arabs or Muslims or any certain type of individual who is most likely to commit such crimes. But they also know that members of groups that are broadly supportive of anti-Israel terror, like the Palestinians, have to be given more scrutiny than others, even if that might seem unfair to some peaceful individuals. Like security checkpoints in Judea and Samaria, and the nation’s security fence between the territories and Israel, the main thing is to make it harder for potential terrorists. That is why Palestinian Arabs from the territories were barred from Ben-Gurion and needed to go elsewhere to fly internationally. But those Palestinians with U.S. passports will now have the same free entry to Israel and its international airport as other Americans. Indeed, even Palestinians with American citizenship currently living in terrorist-run Gaza will also have that privilege.

For the last few weeks, Israel has been running a trial program in which the new less-stringent regulations are put in place. But the Biden administration took the issue seriously enough to send observers to Ben-Gurion as well as to various border crossings to ensure that the Israelis were keeping their word.

Will that harm Israel? Israel’s security establishment is worried that it will. That’s why the chiefs of the agencies were reportedly opposed to Netanyahu’s decision to bow to the American demand so as to facilitate the visa waiver for Israelis seeking to visit the United States.

It’s possible that terror groups will take advantage of the situation by using those with American documents to commit some outrage. Yet it is equally true that the Israelis will be very much on their guard to account for that possibility.

Israelis share faith in the security establishment’s ability to outwit and defeat terrorists. Yet they are as fallible as any other human endeavor. Considering that those agencies are run by the same class of people that mismanage much of the rest of the government bureaucracy that drives the country’s citizens to distraction, it’s not always clear whether such blind faith is justified. But to believe anything else would, as some Israelis have told me, be too scary to live with.

The problem here is not solely one that centers on whether Israel can continue to screen out terrorists. Rather, it is an American mindset that treats such concerns as less important than making a point about protecting Arab and Muslim Americans.

Since the 9/11 attacks, the U.S. government has often acted as if it’s more important not to offend the sensibilities of Muslims than to protect the country. Even government agencies bought into the myth of a post-9/11 backlash against Muslims and thus have always gone out of their way to pretend that there is no threat or that it is greatly exaggerated.

America can engage in such policies because its relative size and strength render it capable of sometimes treating even the possibility of deadly threats as less important than political correctness. Israel has no such margin of error and remains beset by terrorist groups with significant levels of support among Palestinians, as well as their foreign sympathizers. It remains a nation under threat in a way that few Americans understand. If Americans thought of themselves as facing the same sort of danger that Israelis must live with, it’s likely that they wouldn’t be quite so cavalier about issuing diktats to them that might lead to catastrophe.

Netanyahu—himself under siege by a leftist “resistance” determined to delegitimize his government—would like to deliver to his people a gift in the form of a U.S. visa waiver. He is betting that the security services will be able to overcome the opening that Biden may have, wittingly or unwittingly, given the terrorists. Israelis and those who care about the Jewish state must hope that he’s right. Still, they should also mark this decision down as one more instance in which the United States is willing to sacrifice the security of the one Jewish state on the planet just to make a political point.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him on Twitter: @jonathans_tobin.

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