Israel is making another push to join the U.S. visa waiver program, which would allow Israelis to enter the U.S. for 90 days without a visa. Last year, another effort to enlist Israel in the program stalled amid criticisms of Israel’s discrimination against Americans of Arab and Muslim origins at its border.
In the latest push, which was reported today in Haaretz, Israeli officials said they planned on ending discrimination against Palestinian-Americans entering Israel through Ben Gurion Airport, the country’s main international hub. But this pledge falls short in several ways.
Though discrimination against Palestinian-Americans is particularly acute — and, because of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, particularly fraught — it does not constitute the totality of Israel’s discrimination against American citizens. The U.S. State Department, after all, warns that “U.S. citizens whom Israeli authorities suspect of being of Arab, Middle Eastern, or Muslim origin” face difficulties entering.
Indeed, confronted with a specific question today on Americans of Middle Eastern and Muslim extraction, State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki acknowledged that narrowly easing discrimination against only Palestinian-Americans would not be enough to satisfy the reciprocity requirements for consideration in the visa waiver program. So while Israel seeks piecemeal fixes to the problem, the U.S. — correctly — won’t readily compromise the equal rights of any of its citizens.
What’s more, Ben Gurion Airport isn’t the only point of entry to Israeli-controlled areas where these demographic groups may encounter discrimination. Last year, my colleague George Hale and I reported on the case of Nour Joudah, an American of Palestinian descent teaching in the Palestinian territories who was denied entry to Israel twice — in the first instance at the Allenby Bridge, a crossing between the Israeli-controlled West Bank and Jordan where Israeli officials now claim Palestinian-Americans were supposed to enter in the first place.
The Israeli push, however, does reveal some important points, and again Joudah’s case is instructive. While an Israeli official complained that Oslo Accord restrictions on Palestinians prevented those without Israeli citizenship from entering at Ben Gurion, the justification often given to travelers themselves cited undisclosed security concerns. For Joudah, Israelis cited these vague allegations both at Allenby Bridge and at Ben Gurion Airport.
This raises two important questions. First, if the obstacles to entry at Ben Gurion were bureaucratic Oslo Accord restrictions, why are travelers of Palestinian descent so frequently denied on security grounds? Second, if Israel is willing to do away with the discrimination — importantly, a tacit Israeli admission that it exists — then how seriously should we take their previous assertions of security issues?
The answer to the latter question is: Not that seriously. No doubt, Israel faces real security concerns, but a 25-year-old American schoolteacher like Joudah hardly seems to fit that bill.
And, indeed, as the Center for American Progress analyst Matt Duss pointed out on Twitter, Israel routinely insisted that the route of its controversial security wall in the occupied West bank was determined by hard-and-fast security concerns — only to change the route in several instances when pressure was brought to bear. Likewise with Israel’s West Bank settlement project as a whole, which for decades was justified by the security concern of “strategic depth” — a reasoning that has all but disappeared from the justifications for settlements.
Notwithstanding these existential flaws in Israel’s push to join the visa waiver program, pro-Israel members of Congress are forging ahead with their efforts to gain Israel’s entry.
Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA), who spearheaded last year’s effort with support from the influential pro-Israel lobby AIPAC, is back at it again. Instead of seeking what critics saw in her last bid as an exemption from the program’s requirement just for Israel, this time Boxer is broadening her scope to ease barriers for any country to enter the program.
Potential participants must have a rate of denied entry to the U.S. lower than 3%. According to Haaretz, Boxer’s latest push would allow countries with denial rates between 3 and 10% to apply for the program. It’s no coincidence that Israelis’ denial rate to the U.S. is around 10%.
In other words, whereas Boxer last sought a special exemption for Israel, this time around she’s simply lowering our standards for any country so as to allow Israel into the fold.
Doing all this for the sake of the U.S.-Israel relationship is silly. Israel enjoys unprecedented diplomatic cover from the U.S. in international fora, and receives billions of dollars annually in aid. The U.S.-Israel relationship, much to the chagrin of its critics, is just fine without visa waivers.
Members of Congress ought to focus their efforts on seeking redress from Israel not for the sake of our binational relations, but rather for the sake of our compatriots — like Joudah and countless others — who’ve faced discrimination at Israeli hands.
And Israel should deal with this discrimination against Americans on its own merits as an affront against citizens of Israel’s best and most important ally, not simply as a bargaining chip for easy entry to the U.S.
Ali Gharib is an independent journalist based in Brooklyn. Follow him at @ali_gharib.