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newsU.S.-Israel Relations

American Jewish groups downplay Visa Waiver Program risks to Israel

Palestinian Arabs must be “thoroughly screened,” Morton Klein, national president of the Zionist Organization of America, told JNS.

Palestinian security forces at the Rafah border crossing to Egypt in the southern Gaza Strip, on Oct. 3, 2021. Photo by Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90.
Palestinian security forces at the Rafah border crossing to Egypt in the southern Gaza Strip, on Oct. 3, 2021. Photo by Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90.

As the Sept. 30 deadline looms for Israel to either gain entry into the U.S. Visa Waiver Program, which it has sought for more than a decade or have to restart its application, questions loom about whether Washington’s entry requirements would create security risks for Israel.

A sticking point has been that Foggy Bottom would require Israel to treat all U.S. citizens equally—meaning Israeli border and other police could not subject U.S. citizens with ties to Palestinian-controlled areas to any extra screening.

“We have made clear, both publicly and privately, that the Visa Waiver Program needs to apply to all American citizens in Israel, whether they be in the West—and that includes whether they be in the West Bank or whether they be in Gaza,” said Matthew Miller, the U.S. State Department spokesman, during a press briefing on Aug. 1.

“We understand that there can be different procedures for Americans in the West Bank because of the different security situation there,” he added. “But we have made clear that the program needs to apply for Americans there as well and to the extent Israel needs to make changes to how they’re implementing the program now, that is something that we fully expect them to do.”

Morton Klein, national president of the Zionist Organization of America, told JNS that any visa-free travel agreement between Israel and the United States must not compromise Israeli security.

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

If Palestinian Arabs cross Israeli borders, then they must be “thoroughly screened,” according to Klein.

The Visa Waiver Program allows most citizens of the 40 participating countries to travel to the United States for up to 90 days without a visa.

‘It will strengthen the U.S.-Israel alliance’

Representatives of several American Jewish organizations did not express concern that the U.S. requirements will jeopardize Israeli security.

Marshall Wittmann, spokesman for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, told JNS that Israeli entry into the program “will only deepen the U.S.-Israel relationship to the mutual benefit of both countries.” Asked if AIPAC had any security or other concerns about the inclusion of Palestinian Americans in the program, Wittmann told JNS he had nothing further to add.

Rabbi Eric Fusfield, director of legislative affairs at B’nai B’rith International, told JNS that Israel’s inclusion into the program was vital to the U.S.-Israel relationship and would benefit both countries greatly.

“The two governments have been cooperating closely to reach a solution that will take into account both Israel’s crucial security concerns and the ability of visitors who meet qualifications to enter Israel,” he said. “We look forward to seeing them reach a successful conclusion.”

Jason Isaacson. Credit: American Jewish Committee.

Jason Isaacson, chief policy officer at the American Jewish Committee, told JNS that an agreement between Jerusalem and Washington, which has led to a trial period leading up to the program, is cause for celebration for pro-Israel Americans.

“It is our hope that Israel will be admitted. It is good for the Israeli people, and it will strengthen the U.S.-Israel alliance,” he said.

Isaacson is confident that Israel will be able to screen any potential security threats upon entry to the Jewish state, irrespective of Visa Waiver Program requirements.

“I have full confidence in the ability of Israeli authorities to vet all U.S. passport holders,” he said. “There is close consultation between U.S. and Israeli security authorities currently taking place, and Israel has been establishing procedures to maintain the high standards needed to join the Visa Waiver program while also overcoming any potential security challenges.”

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