Israel to U.S.: We'll ease stance on Palestinian-Americans, if we join visa waiver program

A working group on the issue is set to meet in July.

Israeli Arabs say they are getting better treatment during security checks at Ben-Gurion Airport.
Israeli Arabs say they are getting better treatment during security checks at Ben-Gurion Airport. / Photo by David Bachar
By Barak Ravid
Published 04:27 22.04.14

Israel is willing to treat Palestinian-Americans entering the country as it treats other Americans if Israel joins the U.S. visa waiver program, a senior Israeli official said.

In a new approach, Deputy Foreign Minister Zeev Elkin discussed the issue with senior State Department and Department of Homeland Security officials in Washington in early March, the official added.

For years, discrimination against Palestinian-Americans entering Israel has been a main obstacle against Israel’s joining the program, under which citizens of approved countries can stay in the United States for up to 90 days if they meet certain requirements. The State Department has repeated this concern a number of times in recent years, including last month.

“The Department of Homeland Security and State remain concerned with the unequal treatment that Palestinian-Americans and other Americans of Middle Eastern origin experience at Israel’s border and checkpoints, and reciprocity is the most basic condition of the visa waiver program,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters at a daily briefing in March.

A senior Israeli official said that when Psaki made this statement, Israel had already pledged to resolve the issue.

According to the official, the problem is the Oslo Accords between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization. Under the agreements, Palestinians who hold foreign citizenship but are registered in the Palestinian population registry, and who seek to visit the West Bank, must cross into Israel via the Allenby Bridge from Jordan, not through Ben-Gurion International Airport.

Under this clause, Israel has refused to admit many Palestinian-Americans who arrive at Ben-Gurion and say they intend to visit the West Bank. But other Americans who arrive on the same flight are allowed to enter. The passports of Palestinian-Americans entering at the Allenby Bridge receive a stamp stating that their entry is restricted to the West Bank.

At the end of February, the Foreign Ministry requested the State Department and Department of Homeland Security to join the visa waiver program. The letter expressed a willingness to meet every condition the Americans have raised over the years and that were part of two bills introduced in the Senate and House of Representatives. One condition is equal treatment of Palestinian-Americans.

A few weeks later Elkin came to Washington for talks on the matter, the senior official said. Even before the trip, Elkin had been tapped by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman to coordinate an interministerial committee to find a solution to the Americans' conditions and to cut some of the red tape that had slowed progress.

Elkin met in Washington with Deputy Secretary of State William Burns, Assistant Secretary of State Janice Jacobs and Deputy Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas.

At the meetings, Elkin said Israel would ensure egalitarian treatment of Palestinian-Americans if Israel were included in the visa waiver program. He said Israel would change procedures so that Palestinian-Americans would be exempt from the clauses in the Oslo Accords that discriminated against them.

The senior Israeli official said that after a long stalemate on the issue, significant progress had been made in recent months — apparently due to the Israelis’ new approach.

For years, attempts to pressure the Obama administration through Congress and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee have led to acrimony. Instead, Israel is now opting for direct dialogue with the State Department and Department of Homeland Security. Israel’s letter at the end of February was the fruit of this new approach.

In Washington, Elkin also pledged that Israel would meet American security requirements, such as providing passenger lists beforehand and reporting on stolen Israeli passports.

The senior official said Elkin had received a positive response from both the State Department and Department of Homeland Security. The two sides agreed to set up a joint working group to focus on Israel’s joining the visa waiver program. The group’s first meeting is expected to take place in early July.

For now, a main obstacle is that under U.S. law, to enter the visa waiver program, a country’s visa refusal rate must be below 3 percent. Israel’s is at about 10 percent.

To get around this, Democratic Senator Barbara Boxer has proposed a bill to be coordinated with the Obama administration. According to a draft of the bill, the U.S. authorities would use their discretion in letting countries join the program whose visa refusal rate is between 3 percent and 10 percent.