Federal agencies express concerns about Israel’s entry into the Visa Waiver Program

Israel/PalestineUS Politics
on 38 Comments
Jen Psaki

Jen Psaki

Israel has long sought to enter the U.S. Visa Waiver Program, which allows citizens from participating countries to travel to the United States for up to 90 days without obtaining a visa.  Yet, Israel has not been admitted to the program because of its ongoing discrimination against Palestinian and Arab Americans. Under the terms of the program, U.S. citizens are also given the same automatic 90 day visas, a condition of the program known as reciprocity.  In a State Department press briefing on Friday, State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki again acknowledged Israel’s pattern of discrimination against U.S. citizens, saying “the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of State both remain concerned for reciprocal visa free travel privileges for U.S. citizens due to the unequal treatment of Palestinian Americans and other Arab Americans receive at Israel’s borders and checkpoints.”

Psaki’s statement came in response to questions from Associated Press reporter Matt Lee concerning a recently announced working group to help ease visa restrictions for Israeli travelers.  The State Department indicated that the working group was formed in response to letters from members of Congress, which alleged that the State Department was responding disproportionally to widespread visa fraud related to the Dead Sea industries by denying visas to many young Israelis.  On March 6th Senator Charles Schumer sent a letter calling on the State Department to “end its widespread, arbitrary practice of denying young Israelis tourist visas.”

Although lawmakers like Senator Schumer and Representative Grace Meng have remained silent about Israel’s policy of interrogating, detaining and deporting U.S. citizens, they have been vocal in their contention that Israeli travelers suspected of visa fraud should be shown more leniency.  In similarly themed remarks during a House Foreign Affairs Committee mark-up of the United States-Israel Strategic Partnership Act, Representative Brad Sherman asserted that Arab Americans who had been denied entry by Israel were “associated with Islamic extremism,” and emphasized the need to ease U.S. visa restrictions so that Israelis could visit Disneyland, saying “when they (Israelis) want to see Mickey Mouse, they should see the real one.”

The recent letters from Senator Schumer and other lawmakers insinuated that the State Department was driving up the denial of Israeli visas in order to trigger a violation of the Visa Waiver Program’s 3% nonimmigrant visa refusal rate requirement, thus thwarting Israel’s entry into program.  In other words, members of Congress were accusing the State Department of punitively denying Israeli tourist visas and keeping Israel out of the Visa Waiver Program in order to settle a diplomatic score.

Israeli discrimination against U.S. citizens

By reiterating that Israel was discriminating against U.S. citizens, however, the State Department was clarifying that Israel is not only violating the Visa Waiver Program’s 3% nonimmigrant visa refusal rate, but also the condition that Israel provide U.S. citizens with automatic 90 day visas, known as the reciprocity requirement.  During the State Department briefing on Friday, Psaki followed her comments about Israel’s unequal treatment of U.S. citizens by emphasizing that “reciprocity is the most basic condition of the Visa Waiver Program, that hasn’t changed.”

Some U.S. lawmakers have long been aware that Israel’s discrimination against American citizens constitutes a violation of the Visa Waiver Program’s reciprocity requirement and have introduced legislation aimed at facilitating these policies.  Legislation proposed by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) last year, known as the United States-Israel Strategic Partnership Act of 2013 (S. 462, H.R. 938), sought to include Israel in the Visa Waiver Program but exempt it from the reciprocity requirement.  When the legislation was initially circulated last year, many members of Congress expressed opposition to including Israel in the Visa Waiver Program, albeit for a number of different reasons.  The basis for lawmakers concerns ranged from laudable opposition to Israel’s discriminatory policies to racism against Palestinian citizens of Israel.

Last June, sixteen members of Congress wrote a letter to former Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren expressing concern about Israel’s discrimination against U.S. citizens.  The letter read, in part, “we are concerned that Israeli border officials are disproportionally singling out, detaining and denying entry to Arab and Muslim Americans.”  The letter also quotes the spokesperson for former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who acknowledged Israel’s discriminatory policy, saying, “we expect all American citizens to be accorded the rights any other American citizen would be accorded…there are no second classes.”

In contrast to the aforementioned concerns, many Republican lawmakers worried that Israel’s entry into the Visa Waiver Program would hinder the United States’ ability to discriminate against Arab citizens of Israel.  According to accounts from congressional staffers, a number of the senior republican lawmakers expressed their desire to preserve the United States’ ability to discriminate against Palestinian citizens of Israel.  Many of these same lawmakers were also unpleasantly surprised to learn that Arabs comprised such a large percentage of Israel’s population.

The multifaceted opposition to Israel’s entry into the Visa Waiver Program led to a series of heated last minute meetings on Capitol Hill before the introduction of the United States Israel Strategic Partnership Act of 2013.  The end result of lawmakers’ meetings was that the reciprocity exemption was taken out of the House bill but remained in the Senate version.

The Israel lobby vs. the U.S. intelligence community

After being delayed for a year, the House version of the bill was brought to a vote in March during AIPAC’s annual policy conference; it passed overwhelmingly.  The Senate version of the legislation has yet to be referred out of committee and Senator Boxer has announced plans to rewrite the legislation and remove the problematic exemptions from the Visa Waiver Program’s reciprocity requirement.

Representative Sherman, a major proponent of Israel’s entry into the Visa Waiver Program, has expressed his intention to reinsert the reciprocity exemption into the final piece of legislation when the House and Senate versions are reconciled in conference committee.

The AIPAC backed United States-Israel Strategic Partnership Act may now be facing a new set of hurdles as reports emerge that senior U.S. intelligence officials voiced opposition to Israel’s entry into the Visa Waiver Program, citing fears that Israeli spies will use the program to gain entry to the United States.  According to a report by Roll Call, intelligence officials from a number of different agencies made their views known during a classified briefing before the House Judiciary Committee.  In recent years, current and former intelligence officials have also made it known that the “CIA considers Israel its No. 1 counterintelligence threat in the agency’s Near East Division, the group that oversees spying across the Middle East.”

Israel denies and justifies discrimination

For their part, Israeli officials have offered contradictory explanations about the treatment of U.S. citizens.  When members of Congress sent a letter expressing concern last June, former Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren denied that any such discrimination existed and maintained that only 142 Americans had been denied entry in the last year.  More recently, Israeli government officials claimed that it was allowed to treat Palestinian Americans differently under the terms of the Oslo Accords.

According to a report in Haaretz, senior Israeli officials recently said their government would be willing to end discrimination against Palestinian-Americans if Israel is granted entry into the Visa Waiver Program.  Given that Israel is already to required to provide U.S. citizens with equal treatment under the 1951 U.S.-Israel Treaty of Friendship, Commerce and Navigation, the proposal by Israeli officials is essentially an offer to sell the United States the same car twice.

In response to questions about Israel’s justification of its policies and what actions the United States is taking to address Israel’s discrimination against U.S. citizens, a State Department spokesperson said “The U.S. government seeks equal treatment and freedom to travel for all U.S. citizens regardless of national origin or ethnicity. We regularly raise this issue with the Government of Israel.”

Although the State Department’s efforts to raise the issue with Israel are a positive development, these measures have so far failed to compel Israel to end its discriminatory policies.  Simply expressing concern about Israel’s policies appears to be a wholly insufficient response considering that the United States provides $3.1 billion in taxpayer funded weapons each year and continues to expend political capital at the UN to defend Israeli policies that violate U.S. and international law.

In reality, the only serious challenge to Israel’s discriminatory policies has been the Palestinian-led boycott, divestment and sanctions movement, a source of pressure the State Department has consistently sought to malign.  The BDS movement has gained steam in recent years partly as a reaction to the unwillingness of the United States to apply real pressure on Israel to change its policies.  Ending Israel’s systemic discrimination will likely take more than perfunctory expressions of concern and private working groups, it will require robust enforcement of U.S. laws designed to protect basic human rights.

About Mike Coogan

Mike Coogan is the Legislative Coordinator for the US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation.

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38 Responses

  1. CloakAndDagger
    April 22, 2014, 1:46 pm

    “when they (Israelis) want to see Mickey Mouse, they should see the real one.”

    So this is the justification? Israelis come to the US to boost our tourism? Sure – pull the other one, it has bells on it.

    These treasonous congress-critters need to be removed from their posts. They are pushing the visa waiver program to make it easier for Israeli spies to enter this country without having to undergo any scrutiny from the State Department.

    Schumer, Sherman, et alia, should all be forced to resign.

    On the plus side, I am thrilled that there are actually some good guys in the State Department! Who would’ve thunk it? Since when did we start ignoring our Intelligence community??

    Of course, most Israeli spies already have two passports, so locking the barn door now may not help much.

    • Krauss
      April 22, 2014, 5:40 pm

      Justice for Fans Of The Real Mickey Mouse!
      We demand justice now!

  2. Don
    April 22, 2014, 1:54 pm

    “many Republican lawmakers worried that Israel’s entry into the Visa Waiver Program would hinder the United States’ ability to discriminate against Arab citizens of Israel”

    Infuriating, but it should not surprise. Phil often mentions “Jim Crow”, and always in the past tense. But Jim Crow is coming back strong…
    link to theatlantic.com

  3. Woody Tanaka
    April 22, 2014, 1:55 pm

    “Although lawmakers like Senator Schumer and Representative Grace Meng have remained silent about Israel’s policy of interrogating, detaining and deporting U.S. citizens, they have been vocal in their contention that Israeli travelers suspected of visa fraud should be shown more leniency.”

    Of course. These politicians are just trying to protect the people they’ve been sent to Washington to represent. Too bad the people whose interest they’re representing aren’t Americans.

    • Krauss
      April 22, 2014, 5:41 pm

      Not quite true. They do represent Americans, only Americans who are in turn part of the 0.01% and whose heart lies in the (middle) east. The kind of people who wouldn’t let their kids join the U.S. army(but the IDF is okay).

  4. jenin
    April 22, 2014, 2:41 pm

    A few years ago, my Palestinian father, US citizen for 20 years, professor at an Ivy League university, and probably most peaceful man on earth, tried to enter Israel to, among other things, visit his 90 something year old mother in the West Bank. After interrogating him for 3 days and nights, strip searching him, and keeping him in a cell, they sent him back to the US. I am afraid to try to visit my extended family in the West Bank (almost everyone on my father’s side, including his 9 siblings and their children), because of this (among other stories). All I have to add to this discussion is my personal experience, but based on that it infuriates me that Israel could be considered for entry into the visa waiver program and that what our lawmakers are concerned about regarding this issue is Israelis being able to see the real mickey mouse more easily

    • ritzl
      April 23, 2014, 1:23 am

      Send this to your Rep and Sens. It’s poignant and would have effect, imho.

      And follow up by asking what their positions are on this. Let them know that you as a constituent, care about the outcome and are paying attention.

      Also, this is great stuff to put into a letter to the editor of your local paper. Make it public. Maybe nobody cares, but then maybe somebody does. Maybe lots of somebodies/voters.

      • ritzl
        April 23, 2014, 2:29 am

        @jenin- Afterthought… In my experience, poignancy, constituency, and brevity are a compelling combination. You have all three in your comment.

        Tough to ignore, though, truthfully, it may be ignored, depending on your location.

        You might want to contact ADC for advice on how to follow up and/or pursue this, if that’s what you want to do. link to adc.org

        Peace…

      • jenin
        April 23, 2014, 9:27 am

        Thanks ritzl. At the time, my dad had asked that we not bring attention to the incident– his colleagues had urged him to as well and I had wanted to write about it in the student newspaper. He feared that his family would be retaliated against in some way or Israel would make his travel there even more difficult in the future (although now what he does is fly to Jordan and cross the border to the West Bank there). I am not sure if he was being paranoid or not but I wouldn’t put anything past the Israeli government. I can ask if he’s changed his mind though, because I think your idea is good. I live in NYC though so pretty sure my reps aren’t going to be too receptive

      • ritzl
        April 23, 2014, 5:03 pm

        @jenin- Someday the threat of Israeli retaliation against your family will be a distant memory.

        Best.

    • j
      April 23, 2014, 8:42 am

      Entering Israel I was discriminated too. The border agents checked every item in the luggage of an Israeli Arab couple. Even their perfumes. My perfume was left unchecked.
      I am planning to bring this story to the attention of my local senators and congressman.

      • talknic
        April 23, 2014, 10:10 am

        @ j Your ‘perfume’ is all too apparent.

      • jenin
        April 23, 2014, 10:44 am

        j–yes, I see the situation you described is exactly the same as my father being unable to enter the West Bank via Israel to visit his family for no reason at all. great analytical abilities you have.

        and while I’m at it, your lack of empathy is appalling. I would say astonishing, but frankly, having dealt with the Israel defenders my whole life, it is not surprising at all.

  5. quercus
    April 22, 2014, 2:41 pm

    Here we go again. Special treatment, not equal treatment. Israel uses as its reason not to reciprocate a visa waiver for American citizens, its security issues. Tough sh**t, Israel. Your security issues are your problem, I couldn’t care less about them. If, and when, you solve your ‘security’ issues then you can be considered for the US visa waiver program.

  6. ritzl
    April 22, 2014, 2:59 pm

    … Given that Israel is already to required to provide U.S. citizens with equal treatment under the 1951 U.S.-Israel Treaty of Friendship, Commerce and Navigation, the proposal by Israeli officials is essentially an offer to sell the United States the same car twice.

    It’s more than that. It’s 60 years of evidence that Israel does not and will not keep its word on this. Specific, related evidence.

    And Rep. Sherman’s gambit to get the reciprocity exemption quietly re-inserted in conference highlights one of the great flaws in our representative system of government. Depending on the level of public/media focus and the makeup of conferees, major legislation can be completely changed open-secretively. My guess is that the stealthy “doability” of Sherman’s ploy is why the agencies are speaking up now.

  7. stopaipac
    April 22, 2014, 3:06 pm

    “sixteen members of Congress wrote a letter to former Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren expressing concern”… it is wonderful to know that there are really 16 members (out of 535 members of the House and Senate) that even if give this level of concern for Arab-Americans. I found several other references to the letter in an internet search, but not the actual letter or more importantly for me, the signers. Who are the 16 signers?

  8. seafoid
    April 22, 2014, 3:27 pm

    Ending Israel’s systemic discrimination will likely take more than perfunctory expressions of concern and private working group..it will require the dismantling of Zionism.

  9. jon s
    April 22, 2014, 4:32 pm

    According to today’s report Israel will cease discrimination of Palestinian -Americans, and will be accepted into the visa waiver program. This is good news.

    link to haaretz.com

    • Ecru
      April 22, 2014, 5:06 pm

      Yes an Israeli official “said.” Israelis make a lot of promises of good behaviour; after all this time only a fool would believe them, it’s simply a country that’s bigoted to the core.

    • seafoid
      April 22, 2014, 5:18 pm

      Israeli promises are as valuable as dogshit.

      • Woody Tanaka
        April 22, 2014, 5:30 pm

        “Israeli promises are as valuable as dogshit.”

        Nonsense. The latter can help plants grow. Israeli promises aren’t even that valuable.

    • Woody Tanaka
      April 22, 2014, 5:29 pm

      Actually, it says that they’ll stop discriminating against Americans if they are permitted to be in the waiver program. In other words, they’ll only do the right thing and stop their disgusting behavior against Americans if they’re given a prize. If they aren’t given the prize, then I guess they’ll continue being bigots. How is this blackmail supposed to be “good news”?

    • stopaipac
      April 23, 2014, 7:07 pm

      Exactly. Israel “says” many things. I think what we are looking for is “Israel stopped discriminating” as in action, not empty words.
      An american from California (for example) whose parents and grandparents and great-grandparents… etc came from the US or eventually Europe can go into Israel automatically. If he/she is Jewish. A person whose parents and grandparents and great-grandparents lived in Ramallah.. not so likely. that is aparthied, just one example of a brutal system that discriminates against one group and favors another.
      Why should i get an automatic pass and not a person that has deep and recent roots to actual living there?

  10. radii
    April 22, 2014, 5:10 pm

    let’s not forgot israel sent mossad agents to New Zealand to steal identities of the dead and infirm so they could commit assassinations (using those fake identities of completely innocent people in a gentle country at the end of the Earth) … it seems this new waiver program has finally outed israel as the parasitic menace that it is to the U.S. government and its people … we already know that israel has monitored all U.S. electronic communications since at least the 90s

  11. Stephen Shenfield
    April 22, 2014, 5:50 pm

    Shit, unlike Israeli promises, is a valuable resource. It should be returned to the soil to preserve its fertility.

  12. Kate
    April 22, 2014, 5:57 pm

    > Who are the 16 signers?

    That’s a good question. I have not been able to find either a copy of the letter or a list of the signatories. Interesting that one cannot find everything on the Internet! From various sources I have only come up with these names:

    Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn) – Muslim
    Rep. Andre Carson (D-Ind) – Muslim
    Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich) – only Republican, second-generation Arab-American of Palestinian Christian and Syrian Greek Orthodox descent
    Rep. John Yarmuth (D-Ky) – former Republican, Kentucky’s first Jewish congressman

    Perhaps someone might email one of these congressmen and ask for a copy of the letter, complete with signatories.

  13. AlGhorear
    April 22, 2014, 6:54 pm

    It’s not just Palestinian and other Arab Americans who are denied entry into Israel or given less than a 90 day visa. It’s also anyone border officials suspect might be sympathetic to the Palestinian cause. I’m neither Palestinian or Arab, but after a nightmarish 6 1/2 hour interrogation at the Taba/Eilat border, I was given a 10 day visa. A fellow ISMer planned a second trip to the West Bank to attend an Arabic language program in Bethlehem. After being detained at Ben Gurion airport, she was held for two weeks and then deported to Italy.

    Those in our government that advocate special treatment for Israel are traitors, plain and simple.

  14. Kate
    April 22, 2014, 7:33 pm

    > It’s not just Palestinian and other Arab Americans who are denied entry into Israel or given less than a 90 day visa. It’s also anyone border officials suspect might be sympathetic to the Palestinian cause.

    Right. And the reason there are comparatively few instances of outrageous treatment is that most people who might be treated like this won’t even try to enter Israel. It’s rather expensive to fly there and be turned away, not to mention the humiliation.

    • ritzl
      April 23, 2014, 1:44 am

      @AlGhorear, Kate- Sounds like the basis for a controlled test. 1oo people, half Palestinian descent, half not, sent to visit the WB over say 3 mos. See how many get in.

      If the US security establishment is as upset about countering Israel’s reciprocity exemption as they seem to be, they could pay for it. The results would undoubtedly be classified, but even in that case the Intelligence Committees would have some real-time data to ponder. Assuming there were no leaks about the effort.

    • jenin
      April 23, 2014, 11:42 am

      Right. I described above my father’s experience (he is Palestinian), being interrogated and kept for three days in detention, and then sent back to the US. That, among other stories I have read of Palestinian-Americans like myself has greatly discouraged me from visiting because I don’t want to spend the rare vacation I get in a holding cell, and I don’t want to spend money on the expensive flight just to be turned back. I had actually planned to bite the bullet and go this summer (I haven’t been since 1997, even on that visit the Israelis held us at the airport for 6 or so hours — that is my father and his four children ages 13 and under!) but I backed out and made other vacation plans just because I don’t want to spend my long awaited summer vacation going through this.

  15. Les
    April 22, 2014, 8:34 pm

    Since the visas would only be given to Israeli Jews, they could all be stamped with the Star of David. That has been effective in the past.

  16. Kay24
    April 22, 2014, 11:29 pm

    These are the experts and they should know. Our federal agencies do NOT trust Israel, and this Haaretz article is very revealing:
    “The CIA considers Israel its No. 1 counterintelligence threat in the agency’s Near East Division, the group that oversees spying across the Middle East, according to current and former officials. Counterintelligence is the art of protecting national secrets from spies. This means the CIA believes that U.S. national secrets are safer from other Middle Eastern governments than from Israel.”
    Interesting read:
    link to haaretz.com

  17. traintosiberia
    April 23, 2014, 12:43 am

    Schumer is the self declared Guardian of Israel dedicated to the service of Israel according to God’s will.
    He supports dieting of Gazan. He supports and agitates for war on Iran. He measures and sizes up Hegel on commitment to Israel. He denounces any cut on money supply to Israel.He applauds Netanyahu despite his attitude and utterances against Obama. He supports every acts of Israel including mistreatment of the Americans. He vocally opposes any denial of visa free entry of Israeli to US.

    Now if ,instead of listing these actions on his( Schumer) part to understand Schumer ‘s true loyalty ,one describes him( Schumer) as Israeli Firster ,he or she will be called antisemite

    He supports strike on Syria. He thinks Morsi was bad for
    Egypt. He tried to block the return of Jewish artifact to Iraq. He scolds Obama openly for putting pressure on Israel and asks Obama not to voice frustration in public. He keeps quiet on Israeli disdain to Biden. He makes threat to Obama administration of adverse effects if it continues to exert pressure on Israel. And he is a great American senator!

  18. just
    April 23, 2014, 5:48 am

    Oh my, our congresscritters, who are more devoted to ‘young’ Israelis and other Israeli Disneyland & ‘real’ MM fans than they are to ‘reciprocity’ and the letter of the law (never mind the spirit of the law!) are parading their vomitrocious hypocrisy again…..and somebodies are calling them out. Yeah!

    Don’t they already live in ‘Disneyland’ with an armed-to-the-teeth Goofy in charge? The same one who commissioned the cartoon bomb drawing for show and tell at the UN?

    Vote these cretins out.

    • eljay
      April 23, 2014, 9:12 am

      >> Don’t they already live in ‘Disneyland’ with an armed-to-the-teeth Goofy in charge?

      Their militant Goofy is more than just goofy: According to JeffB, he’s also King of all Jews.

  19. eljay
    April 23, 2014, 7:56 am

    >> … Representative Brad Sherman … emphasized the need to ease U.S. visa restrictions so that Israelis could visit Disneyland, saying “when they (Israelis) want to see Mickey Mouse, they should see the real one.”

    Never mind putting an end to oppression, land theft, occupation, colonization, destruction, torture and murder. Never mind accountability for (war) crimes committed. Never mind honouring obligations under international law.

    Nosir! In the mind of Zio-supremacists and their supporters, ensuring that Israelis have unhindered access to the real Mickey Mouse is what constitutes justice.

  20. traintosiberia
    April 23, 2014, 2:09 pm

    Brad Sherman is another place-holder defending Isreali interests and criminal illegal behaviors. He suppported Iraq war. he finds it difficult that Obama administration was trying to get militarily involved with Syria , chides the adminsitration for looking to UN or depending on the allies or even going to the Congress. He wonders why Obama would even do that when the involvment would be less costly than the cost was for Libya.He blames Syria for using gas and worries it would give cover to dictators in the future if US did not intervene today.(
    link to washingtonpost.com)
    Suggested using Ghaddafi money to pay for the no-fly zone (link to americasradionewsnetwork.com)
    He wants to hurt Iranian (link to my.firedoglake.com)
    He invites Netanyahu to address joint session of congress to empahise how important Israel is (link to jta.org)

    He criminalizes American muslims inferring evidences from the racist Israeli practices at the airport .

    He wants to prosecute Americans involved in Gaza Flotilla-http://mondoweiss.net/2010/06/rep-sherman-prosecute-u-s-citizens-involved-with-gaza-flotilla.html

    Is a Israeli firster ?

    • Citizen
      April 23, 2014, 5:28 pm

      Brad Sherman’s a liberal Zionist. Here’s an interview with him re the Obama red line on attacking Syria: link to washingtonpost.com

      Congressman Brad Sherman (D-CA) called for the arrest and prosecution of “any U.S. citizens who were aboard or involved with the Gaza Freedom Flotilla” under the Anti-terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996.

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