The Israeli media has been busy lately talking about a potential breakthrough in the efforts of US Ambassador Tom Nides to offer a departing gift — a visa waiver for Israelis visiting America. Friendly countries often work out such agreements, provided there is absolute reciprocity; in other words, for Israelis to be afforded special treatment, the state of Israel must adhere to treating all Americans the same.
This is where the problem basically lies.
Israel applies the security concept of profiling. People from certain backgrounds, with certain names and following certain religions, are given special negative treatment at entry points. They are asked to wait for hours and, on many occasions, American citizens are turned back without being given a reason.
Nides, who is leaving his post later this year, appears to be pushing for this breakthrough without a total Israeli commitment to reciprocity as a farewell present to Israelis. In order to bridge the gap between US policy and Israeli reality, he is suggesting a trial period starting July 1, in which Israelis will be tested. But anyone who studies the history of trial periods, especially in the highly politicized relations between Israel and the US, will quickly realize that there is a strong possibility the trial period will become permanent.
All we have to do is look at the US-sponsored Israeli-Palestinian Declaration of Principles signed on the White House Lawn in 1993. In that agreement, often called the Oslo I Accord, Israel committed to a five-year interim period, during which a permanent settlement would be agreed. This interim period, or trial period, has become permanent now that 30 years have passed since the famous handshake between Yasser Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin under the auspices of US President Bill Clinton.
US-Israeli relations are going through some difficult times, as the Biden administration has yet to offer an official invitation to the White House to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. This invitation, which has become a standard in relations between the two countries, has been held up due to the attempts by the Netanyahu administration to weaken the Israeli Supreme Court by means of a controversial judicial overhaul. Hundreds of thousands of Israelis have been protesting weekly for 22 consecutive weeks.
The US administration is also unhappy with the failure of the Israeli government to live up to its and previous Israeli governments’ commitments regarding the building of illegal Jewish settlements, especially the Homesh settlement in the Nablus area. And US officials were this week upset by a critical remark made by Israel’s foreign minister against Vice President Kamala Harris. Eli Cohen questioned whether Harris had ever read the judicial plan that she had criticized. He later apologized for his remarks. Furthermore, the US is still awaiting an Israeli investigation into the killing last year of American-Palestinian journalist Shireen Abu Akleh.
Border crossings between Israel and the rest of the world are infiltrated by security personnel, who have the final decision as to who is allowed in and who is not. A Palestinian American who once lived in Bethlehem cannot use the Israeli airport, while a Jewish American living in the occupied Bethlehem area is allowed into the country without any problem.
Within the areas under Israeli military control, the discrimination is even more obvious. Israelis are allowed to travel throughout the recognized borders of the state of Israel and throughout the Palestinian areas Israel occupied in 1967, whereas Palestinians are confined to their own areas and are not allowed to travel without a special permit issued by the Israelis. As a result, thousands of Palestinian Americans who today live in the West Bank (and some in Gaza) are not allowed unfettered access to Jerusalem and Israel.
It is not clear what the parameters of the discussions behind the scenes are and the commitments that the US is asking of Israel if Washington agrees to the visa waiver. What many fear is that the US will compromise on the idea of total reciprocity with Israel in the name of Israeli security. Imagine a situation in which Israel refuses to allow a US citizen who poses no security threat to travel to Israel or Palestine just because someone in Israeli security does not like their politics.
Added to the above is the fact that Israel has passed a law that forbids anybody of any nationality from entering Israel if they support in any way the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign. So, if an American from the Bible Belt once liked a BDS campaign post on Facebook, Israel has a law that allows it to ban that person from entering the country. There are numerous cases of Israeli airport officials demanding the passwords to passengers’ social media accounts and scanning their posts before deciding whether or not to allow them into Israel.
Countries around the world value their sovereignty and Israel, like the US, has the right to prevent or allow anyone to enter their sovereign areas. But in this case, America is considering giving all Israelis unfettered access to the US without a prior visa, while Israel wants to keep the right to continue its policy of discriminating against visitors on the basis of their original nationality, their religion, their ideas and their thoughts.
There is no problem in the US offering Israel or any other country special treatment on the condition of total reciprocity. However, any compromise on the reciprocity issue would be an encouragement and a green light for countries to further discriminate against Americans. This is not only a violation of individuals’ human rights, but it goes against everything that America stands for. There should not be a trial period or anything less than 100 percent adherence to the reciprocity issue.
All humans must be treated equally. And in the case of an American-Israeli agreement in which all Israelis are treated equally, the very least the US can and should demand is that its citizens are also all treated equally. Period. No ifs, buts or maybes.