Can the US trust Israel to live up to its visa waiver agreement?
President Joe Biden last month allowed Israel to join the US’ Visa Waiver Program — an important decision that grants special privileges to Israeli citizens who enter the country.
From the end of next month, travelers with Israeli citizenship will be able to stay in the US for up to 90 days without requiring a visa, allowing them to sidestep the process of vetting, security checks and reviewing of a visitor’s status as being law-abiding before being allowed to enter. Visas are often denied to individuals with bad reputations, criminal histories or who are suspected of possibly threatening American citizens or causing them harm.
But the Visa Waiver Program also requires Israel to reciprocate, meaning they will have to allow American citizens to enter Israel for periods of up to 90 days without requiring a preapproved visa. By accepting entrance to the US Visa Waiver Program, Israel is stating that it will treat visitors with American citizenship the same way the US will treat visitors with Israeli citizenship. But can Israel be trusted to treat Americans as fairly as America treats Israelis?
Israel has a documented history of not only blocking visitors with American citizenship, but also of harassing them at Ben Gurion International Airport in Tel Aviv and at the three land crossings on its border with Jordan: the Wadi Araba Crossing, the King Hussein Bridge and the Jordan River Crossing.
Israel has a documented history of not only blocking visitors with American citizenship, but also of harassing them
I personally have experienced waves of harassment when arriving in Israel. Even though I was born in the US and have an American passport, I also have a “Palestinian” name. I have had to wait many hours while Israeli security reviewed my history, examined my computer, checked my writing online and even quizzed me about my parents and grandparents. They have strip searched me, ripped through my possessions, “overcooked” my computer laptop and held me for hours. They eventually let me through, but should any visitor be put through such a process without justification?
Israel does not care if you are American. If you are a Palestinian American, whether Christian or Muslim, or if you have criticized the Israeli government’s policies — remember that freedom to criticize the government is a fundamental foundation of any true democracy — then Israel will either harass you when you enter the country as a form of intimidation or, as has been happening more frequently in recent years, prevent you from entering at all and force you to return, at your own expense, to the US.
But the problem is not just that Israel discriminates against non-Jews who have legitimate critical views of Israel’s government. The problem is that Israel has a special law, called the Law of Return, which grants special privileges to any person who is Jewish and has Israeli citizenship — a citizenship that is granted almost automatically just by virtue of someone being Jewish and entering Israel. The moment an individual who is Jewish steps on to Israeli soil, most of which has been stolen from non-Jews, they are protected, including from agreements Israel has signed with foreign countries.
In 1962, Israel and the US signed a bilateral agreement granting extradition rights, allowing each country to claim the return of individuals convicted or charged with the most serious of crimes, including murder. However, in 1978, Israel passed an amendment to its own Extradition Law that gives it the right to exempt any Jewish citizen who entered the country under the Law of Return.
Many mobsters and murderers have been protected from the extradition treaty Israel signed with the US
Be sure not to confuse Israel’s Law of Return with the Palestinian right of return. The former involves people with the most tenuous ties to Israel being allowed to move to Israel and live there, while the latter involves non-Jewish people with documented land ownership and citizenship from the time before Israel was created. The latter have no right of return at all and are usually the ones harassed by Israeli security staff at airports and border crossings.
Under the 1978 revision, an Israeli national may not be extradited except for an offense committed prior to becoming a national. Extradition can be granted only if the person has been charged or convicted of a felony or some other specific extradition offense. The offense must be a criminal offense under the laws of the requesting state and an extradition offense under Israeli law.
Israeli citizens may be extradited to the US for the sole purpose of standing trial, not to serve out a criminal conviction. As a consequence, many convicted and accused mobsters and murderers have been protected from the extradition treaty Israel signed with the US.
For example, Samuel Sheinbein was wanted in the US for the 1997 murder of a 17-year-old Maryland high school student. Sheinbein, who was Jewish, fled to Israel and claimed citizenship, resulting in a protracted legal battle with the US. Although an Israeli judge ordered that Sheinbein be extradited, the Israeli Supreme Court eventually overturned the extradition on the premise that it violated the Law of Return.
Israel conducted its own trial and Sheinbein was convicted and sentenced to 24 years in an Israeli prison. But Sheinbein was granted many privileges and furloughs to leave jail. In 2014, he used a handgun that had been smuggled into the prison to shoot six guards before he was shot dead by Israeli police after a standoff.
As a consequence of the legal battle over Sheinbein, Israel changed its laws to allow the extradition of Israeli citizens only on condition that they are returned there to serve any sentence imposed.
There appears to be only one certainty when making agreements with Israel: Israel’s government will always be thinking of ways to sidestep and create exceptions to them. Expect the same to continue with the Visa Waiver Program, especially when it comes to Palestinian Americans and those who have criticized Israel’s often abhorrent government policies.
- Ray Hanania is an award-winning former Chicago City Hall political reporter and columnist. He can be reached on his personal website at www.Hanania.com. X: @RayHanania