Israelis expected to be allowed visa-free travel to US

The move by Washington is expected to give Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a welcome boost at home

US President Joe Biden met Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York on Wednesday. Reuters
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The Biden administration is poised to admit Israel this week into an exclusive club, allowing its citizens to travel to the US without a visa despite Washington's continuing concerns about the Israeli government’s treatment of Palestinian Americans.

US officials say an announcement of Israel's entry into the Visa Waiver Programme is planned for late in the week, just before the end of the federal budget year on Saturday, which is the deadline for Israel's admission without having to requalify for eligibility next year.

The Department of Homeland Security administers the programme, which currently allows citizens of 40 mostly European and Asian countries to travel to the US for three months without visas.

Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas is set to make the announcement on Thursday, shortly after receiving a recommendation from Secretary of State Antony Blinken that Israel be admitted, according to five officials familiar with the matter, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the decision has not yet been publicly announced.

Mr Blinken's recommendation is expected to be delivered no later than Tuesday, the officials said, and the final announcement will come just eight days after President Joe Biden's meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in New York on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly.

The leaders did not raise the issue in their brief remarks to reporters at that meeting, but it has been a subject of intense negotiation and debate for months.

Israel's admission into the programme has been a priority for successive Israeli leaders and will be seen as a major accomplishment for Mr Netanyahu, who has sparred frequently with the Biden administration over Iran, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and, most recently, proposed changes to Israel's judicial system that critics say will make the country less democratic.

Mr Netanyahu's far-right government has drawn repeated criticism from Washington for its treatment of Palestinians, including its aggressive construction of settlements in the occupied West Bank, its opposition to Palestinian statehood and incendiary anti-Palestinian comments by senior Cabinet ministers.

The Biden administration's move is expected to give Mr Netanyahu a welcome boost at home – where he has faced months of mass protests against his judicial plan.

However, it is likely to come under criticism from the Palestinians, who say the US should not be rewarding the Israeli government at a time when peace efforts are at a standstill.

Updated: September 24, 2023, 2:48 PM