Apr 23rd 2013

Congress Should Not Reward Israel with Visa Waivers

by James J. Zogby

Dr. James J. Zogby is the President of Arab American Institute
There are currently several pieces of legislation being considered in the U.S. Congress that would include Israel in the Visa Waiver Program—thus allowing Israeli citizens to enter the U.S. without first obtaining a visa. Several Senators and Members of Congress have already signed on as co-sponsors. Because countries seeking to qualify for visa waivers must provide "reciprocal privileges to citizens and nationals of the United States,” I would advise those current sponsors and those who might be considering signing on in the future to first take a long, hard look at the Department of State's (DOS) Travel Advisory for Israel, the West Bank and Gaza.

According to the DOS, "U.S. citizens are advised that all persons applying for entry to Israel, the West Bank, or Gaza...may be denied entry or exit without explanation". The DOS Travel Advisory specifically notes that "U.S. citizens whom Israeli authorities suspect of being Arab, Middle Eastern, or Muslim origin...may face additional, often time-consuming, and probing questioning by immigration and border authorities, or may be denied entry".

More disturbing is the treatment meted out to Palestinian Americans. Again, according to the DOS "Israeli authorities might consider as Palestinian anyone who has a Palestinian identification number, was born in the West Bank or Gaza, or was born in the United States but has parents or grandparents who were born or lived in the West Bank or Gaza. Any such U.S. citizen might be required by the Government of Israel to travel to Israel using a Palestinian Authority passport [even if they do not want it]. Without the PA passport, such U.S. citizens might be barred from entry...or may face serious delays at points of entry". 

For more than 35 years now, we have been documenting this discriminatory treatment by Israeli authorities. We have presented the DOS with the complaints of hundreds of American of Arab descent who, upon entering Israel or the Occupied Territories, have reported being: detained for hours of humiliating questioning; forced against their will to secure a Palestinian passport; strip searched; forced to surrender cameras, computers, or phones (some of which have been destroyed or not returned); or denied entry and forced to buy a return ticket back to the U.S.   

Over the years, we have also complained to several Secretaries of State that, by singling out Arab and Muslim Americans, Israel is violating its treaty obligations to the U.S.  In the "1951 U.S.-Israel Treaty of Friendship, Commerce, and Navigation" Israel pledged to permit U.S. citizens to "travel freely, to reside at places of their choice, to enjoy liberty of conscience" and to guarantee them "the most constant protection and security". And when the DOS and U.S. Consular officials have failed to act to protect the rights of American citizens traveling to Israel, we have argued that they are failing to honor the commitment given to U.S. citizens on the opening page of every U.S. passport: "The Secretary of State of the United States of America hereby requests all whom it may concern to permit the citizen/national of the United States named herein to pass without delay or hindrance and in case of need to give all lawful aid and protection". 

Our concern has been that Israel was being allowed to determine, on its own, that Arab Americans are second-class U.S. citizens. We have asked our government’s leadership to consider the implications of another country saying to an American citizen, even a second or third generation American, that their American passport is meaningless and that they have to secure a foreign passport before they can travel. 

Some U.S. officials have been responsive. President Clinton provided me with the opportunity to directly raise the issue with a visiting Israeli Prime Minister. Secretary of State Albright repeatedly protested this behavior with her Israeli counterpart. And Secretary Rice issued a strong statement denouncing Israel's discriminatory treatment by publicly affirming that "an American citizen is an American citizen". The Israelis, however, have failed to respond.

Given this record, it is both bewildering and maddening that some Senators and Members of Congress now want to legitimate Israel's refusal to recognize that Arab Americans, and most especially Palestinian Americans, should be accorded their full rights as American citizens. Two of the three pieces of visa waiver legislation being considered specifically give Israel an exemption from the obligation to guarantee reciprocity for all U.S. citizens. Should Congress pass these laws, they will not only be condoning Israel's unconscionable behavior (nothing new there), but they will also be failing in their obligation to protect and defend the rights of their fellow Americans.

One final observation is in order. While one of the visa waiver bills is a "stand alone" amendment, the others are embedded in larger bills that are intended to designate Israel as a “major strategic ally”. These bills provide extraordinary new benefits to Israel in the areas of defense, energy, trade, and intelligence cooperation. Some of our friends suggest that we should be satisfied with efforts to merely weaken the visa waiver provisions in these bills and let the rest pass, as is. I cannot agree. It is the responsibility of our government to protect our rights. And it ought to be a litmus test for any foreign country that seeks to be classified as a "major U.S. strategic ally" that they be expected to respect the rights of all Americans, as well.

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