by: David Harris-Gershon on April 22nd, 2014 | 2 Comments »
Israel has been told by the United States that, unless it stops discriminating against Palestinian-Americans (and Americans of Middle-Eastern descent) trying to enter the country, Israel will continue to be denied entry into its visa waiver program.
Israel would like to gain entry into the program, which grants visitors to the United States from approved countries visas of up to 90 days. However, American officials remain concerned about the high percentage of Palestinian-Americans who are refused entry into Israel.
In March, Israel’s Deputy Foreign Minister told U.S. officials that Israel would stop discriminating against Palestinian-Americans if the U.S. granted Israel entry into its visa waiver program. However, its seems the State Department is not interested in promises alone, but rather wants to see a pattern of concrete actions.
For years, discrimination against Palestinian-Americans entering Israel has been a main obstacle against Israel’s joining the program … The State Department has repeated this concern a number of times in recent years, including last month.
“The Department of Homeland Security and State remain concerned with the unequal treatment that Palestinian-Americans and other Americans of Middle Eastern origin experience at Israel’s border and checkpoints, and reciprocity is the most basic condition of the visa waiver program,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters at a daily briefing in March.
Now, to be clear: nobody here is claiming that the United States does not discriminate against other nationalities or, for that matter, Palestinian-Americans at its own borders. It is no secret that those trying to enter the United States from other nations outside the U.S. visa waiver program are detained and interrogated with an alarming frequency, particularly if they are not lily white.
However, such discrimination, while abhorrent and troubling, is not relevant to Israel’s desire to enter the U.S. program. America demands reciprocity: you don’t discriminate against our citizens, and we won’t discriminate against yours.
Currently, Israel leans upon Oslo-based agreements to deny a large percentage of Palestinians entry into Israel, particularly those flying through Ben Gurion Airport. These are agreements which are used as excuses not because they are binding, but because they are convenient.
It is significant that Israel is currently trying a diplomatic approach to resolving this issue. In the past, it simply tried to lean upon heavy AIPAC pressure, to no avail. Hence the diplomatic approach.
This may seem like a small issue, but it’s a large enough issue that Israel has invested significant diplomatic and lobbying pressure to change America’s policy. In truth, the issue symbolically represents America’s true political stance with regard to how Israel treats the Palestinians, only on a small scale with no political risk.
Here, America can tell Israel, You want to be treated equally? Treat the Palestinians equally. Only, it’s politically safe to do so, since we’re talking about American citizens.
To stand firm and compel Israel to do what official American policy dictates – to freeze settlement construction, for example – remains too much for U.S. politicians to bear.
David Harris-Gershon is author of the memoir What Do You Buy the Children of the Terrorist Who Tried to Kill Your Wife?, just out from Oneworld Publications.
Follow him on Twitter @David_EHG.