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For Arab Americans, blue is not blue

Jul 31,2023 - Last updated at Jul 31,2023

News last week that the US and Israel were about to sign a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) advancing Israel’s entry into the US Visa Waiver Programme (VWP) should not have caught us by surprise. But it did. For months, we had been assured by various Biden Administration officials that Israel could not meet the requirements of the programme. Concerns focused on the VWP’s statutory requirement that participant governments must guarantee full reciprocity to US citizens seeking entry, without regard to race, religion, or national origin.

For the Biden Administration to sign this MoU is an insult to Arab Americans, especially Palestinian Americans, given Israel’s decades of discriminatory entry/exit treatment of our community attempting to visit Israel or the Occupied Palestinian Territory (OPT).

As has been well documented, Israel routinely disregards American passports, blatantly ignoring the rights of Arab Americans and Americans practicing First Amendment expression for Palestinian rights. These US citizens have reported being harassed, detained, and outright denied entry by Israeli officials. During these incidents, Arab Americans have been strip-searched, questioned for hours about family and property histories, and even forced to give access to their social media accounts.

For months, Biden Administration officials held, like all other 40 countries in the programme, Israel must meet the statutory requirements including reciprocity before being admitted. Yet, the US has signed this MoU when there has been no demonstrable change in Israeli behaviour since the latest push to admit it into the VWP began two years ago. The requirement of reciprocity continues to be ignored with the blatant discrimination Israel exhibits in its treatment of Arab Americans seeking to enter the country or the OPT. In fact, since then, Israel has issued even more onerous restrictions on visiting Palestinian Americans.

One month ago, we were informed that there would be a 30-day test to see if Israel would apply non-discriminatory policies to visitors. We scoffed at this plan noting that after having endured five decades of abusive behaviour at the hands of Israeli border officials, we demanded more, concrete evidence of change.

The hope we had that our government was paying attention to our concerns was bolstered by recent evidence of the Biden Administration’s frustration with the policies of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The US has asked the Israelis to not build settlements, they announced 5,000 more units. We pushed them to control settler violence and stop home demolitions, it continues. We have pressed them to stop provocative raids, yet in just the past year, Israeli forces were directly responsible for killing US citizen Shireen Abu Akleh during a raid. So, when President Biden called Netanyahu’s government the “most extremist” in Israel’s history and continued to delay inviting him to meet in the US, we assumed that the Administration wanted to send a message to the Israeli leader and his coalition.

What message did Biden send? In a day’s time, the Administration announced both a meeting with the Israeli PM and the decision to sign the MoU on the VWP.

[Note to historians: it is this confounding US practice of continually rewarding Israel’s bad behaviour that has created their sense of impunity and fuelled the very extremism about which we claim to be concerned.]

Reading through this US-Israel MoU is deeply troubling. While claiming to be a roadmap to clarify reciprocity, what the MoU does is allow Israel to redefine reciprocity to serve its purposes. With this MoU, the Administration has disregarded the legal requirements of joining the VWP to Israel’s benefit.

By admitting Israel into the VWP in violation of statutory requirements, the Administration will choose to abandon the rights of Arab American citizens to give Israel a political perk. This decision is an egregious breach of responsibility owed by the US government to its citizens. It is an insult to my community, and the law that created the visa waiver programme.


The writer is president of the Washington-based Arab American Institute

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