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US to let Israelis enter visa-free, citing less discrimination

People leave Israel's Ben Gurion Airport near Lod as anti-government demonstrators rally in July 2023
— Washington (AFP)

The United States said Wednesday it will start letting Israelis visit without visas, granting a key wish of its ally after concluding it had reduced discrimination against Arab Americans -- an assessment rejected by some lawmakers and activists.

By the end of November, Israelis will be in the same league as citizens of most Western nations by not needing visas for trips of 90 days or less to the world's largest economy.

"We have been working on this for years, almost a decade," Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said.

"I would like to express our appreciation to US President Joe Biden for his support of the initiative, which will further strengthen ties between the two peoples," he said.

The Biden administration made the decision after Israel in July promised a series of steps to comply with US demands to treat all US passport holders equally -- without discriminating against Americans who are of Palestinian or other Arab heritage or who are Muslim.

Visa-free travel marks "a critical step forward in our strategic partnership with Israel that will further strengthen longstanding people-to-people engagement, economic cooperation and security coordination," Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement.

He said that the efforts would also bring greater "freedom of movement" for US citizens living in or visiting the Palestinian territories.

A US official briefing reporters insisted that the decision was not a "favor" to Israel but the result of progress.

But Biden is also increasingly seeking to work with Netanyahu -- whose hard-right government the US president has frequently criticized -- to seek a historic peace deal with Saudi Arabia.

Ahmed Majdalani, the Palestinian social affairs minister, said the US decision "appears to be a reward" for letting Palestinian Americans enter Israel.

"It also confirms that America stands by Israel all the time," he told AFP.

More than a dozen senators from Biden's own Democratic Party had urged Blinken to hold off before a Saturday certification deadline and press for greater change.

"Adherence to this important American tenet of reciprocity and equal treatment of all US citizens is critical to the integrity of the visa waiver program, and we are deeply concerned with the administration's decision to move forward in violation of that principle," said a joint statement by Democratic lawmakers led by Senator Chris Van Hollen.

- Enough progress? -

Israel already does not require visas for most Americans.

Passengers arrive on the Jordanian side of the King Hussein Bridge, also known as Allenby Bridge, between the West Bank and Jordan on July 19, 2022

But until the July agreement, Palestinian Americans seeking to enter the West Bank were obliged to cross by the Allenby Bridge with Jordan and were not allowed through Ben Gurion airport near Tel Aviv, Israel's main international gateway.

The Democratic lawmakers said that more action was necessary as US citizens who hold Palestinian identification cards still cannot rent cars at Ben Gurion and cannot go through Israeli checkpoints that prohibit Palestinians.

The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee filed a lawsuit to prevent Israel's entry into the visa waiver program, a move it said "would be an endorsement of discrimination against Palestinian and Arab Americans."

J Street, a progressive pro-Israel group frequently critical of Netanyahu, welcomed easier travel for Israelis but said it was clear that the US requirements "are being bent and adjusted to accommodate Israel in a way that they have not been for other countries."

But another US official said Israel met demands by keeping refusal of Americans seeking to enter as non-immigrants at 2.27 percent in the last fiscal year, within the target of a maximum three percent.

US officials said they could rescind the visa waiver status if there is backsliding.

In Tel Aviv, student Daniela Stein said she holds a US visa but can now travel on short notice with friends and family who did not.

"I know people who would like to fly and see the world, so it opens up opportunities for them, America is a special place that many people have not yet visited," she said.

Nearly all Western nationals enjoy visa-free entry into the United States including people from all European Union members except Bulgaria, Cyprus and Romania.

Other beneficiaries include people from high-income Asian societies -- Japan, South Korea, Singapore, Taiwan and Brunei.

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