A campaign to allow Israelis to enter the United States without a visa is gaining steam in Congress, but is still running into a brick wall with the Obama administration over the U.S. government's most elementary demand: that the Jewish state provide the same treatment at its borders to all Americans, even if they are Arab or Muslim.
Objections from U.S. officials and some lawmakers blocked a congressional effort over the last year that could have allowed Israel to maintain discriminatory entry policies for certain groups of Americans, which no other country can do if its citizens are able to visit the U.S. without visas. However, a new version of proposed legislation could offer Israel greater flexibility in the Visa Waiver Program, and the administration has pledged to work with Israel to help it move closer to qualifying for the program.
Israel's push to join the prestigious club of 38 mainly European and Asian nations is a top priority for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government, the pro-Israel lobby AIPAC and pro-Israel lawmakers. And because Israel currently meets few of the criteria for membership, the issue has become a sensitive diplomatic and legislative one in Washington, where officials and lawmakers don't want to offend a close friend and ally. Citizens of member countries can visit the United States for up to 90 days without a visa, provided they register electronically before boarding a flight.
"Reciprocity is the most basic condition of the Visa Waiver Program," State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said recently. Asked if the U.S. might soften that demand for Israel, she said: "No. The requirements have not changed. The Department of Homeland Security and the Department of State both remain concerned with reciprocal travel privileges for U.S. citizens due to the unequal treatment that Palestinian Americans and other Arab Americans receive at Israel's borders and checkpoints."