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Israelis can now travel to the United States without needing a visa

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Some other news this morning - the United States is giving Israelis something they've sought for decades - travel to the U.S. without needing a visa. This is part of a larger deal. Israel has given something back. It has ended bans and restrictions against Palestinian Americans and Arab Americans. This is all a little complicated, and it affects different people differently depending on what passport they have, what papers they have. But fortunately, we have NPR's Daniel Estrin on the line, who can help us explain it all. Hey there, Daniel.

DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: Hey, Steve.

INSKEEP: How big a deal is this?

ESTRIN: Well, it's a pretty big deal for Israelis who - you know, they won't need to wait months for visas anymore. Starting November 30, they will just get to travel to the U.S. for work and tourism. And this is something Israel has wanted for years. I mean, basically they've told the U.S., listen, we're your close allies. Why can't we be like, you know, France and Germany and dozens of other countries in your visa-free program? But for many years Israel did not qualify, and that had a lot to do with Israel's security paradigm and philosophy. And some of this really hasn't gotten a lot of attention. For instance, U.S. officials actually found holes in Israel's border security, which, you know, probably sounds surprising given Israel's well-known security measures.

INSKEEP: Yeah.

ESTRIN: But under this new deal, the U.S. has asked Israel to adopt passenger screening protocols that were established after 9/11. And Israel, also under this deal, has agreed to tighten the way it hands out passports to new immigrants. And there was a fear that in the U.S. that - you know, to try to prevent an influx of Russians who have moved to Israel since the war in Ukraine. So all that is part of this deal. But really the key U.S. demand here was reciprocity. If Israelis can travel freely to America, then Israel should treat all Americans equally when they want to travel to Israel, and that goes for people like Iranian Americans, Lebanese Americans and especially Palestinian Americans.

INSKEEP: What does it mean for that last group?

ESTRIN: Well, it means that if you have residency papers in the West Bank and Gaza - you're Palestinian but also American - you're no longer barred from Israel's main airport. And that makes travel so much easier for them. If you are Palestinian American living in the West Bank, you can just show up at an Israeli checkpoint and enter Israel as a tourist. And ever since Israel changed the rules on this, this summer tens of thousands of Palestinian Americans have done things that, you know, people like you and I - if you visit Israel and in the West Bank - you take this for granted.

INSKEEP: Sure.

ESTRIN: You can visit the birthplace of Jesus in the West Bank. You can then go to Israel, visit the Sea of Galilee. And I've heard some really colorful stories about Palestinian Americans experiencing this. Listen to Mohammed Manasrah.

MOHAMMED MANASRAH: I drove through every single checkpoint between the West Bank and Israel I could within this week. Like, I would literally drive through the checkpoint, make a U-turn, come back. And it just feels like every time I go through a checkpoint, it's like I won.

ESTRIN: It's like I won, he says. So this is, like, a huge change for freedom of movement for Palestinian Americans.

INSKEEP: OK, so you used the word reciprocity - Americans want their citizens to be treated the same as Israeli citizens.

ESTRIN: Right.

INSKEEP: And you also raised the concept of equality - whoever the American citizen is, whatever background, they needed to be treated the same, including Palestinian Americans. But is this full equality? Is everything sorted out?

ESTRIN: Well, you know, many say no. There are still some unequal ways Israel treats Palestinian Americans. Some Democratic senators have expressed concerns. There's an Arab American rights group trying to get an injunction against Israel joining this new program. And the U.S. acknowledges, listen, big picture, this doesn't address the Israeli discrimination against the vast majority of Palestinians who don't have U.S. citizenship.

INSKEEP: What does it say that President Biden's administration has made this agreement with Israel at the same time that the Biden administration is criticizing Israel's right-wing government for its efforts to change the rules of the government in Israel?

ESTRIN: I think it says a lot. I think it says that, you know, there's something much bigger here in Biden's sights, and that's a mega deal, a diplomatic deal between Israel and Saudi Arabia. And that would require Israel to make even bigger concessions to the Palestinians than this, you know, change to travel. So this might be a sweetener for Israel.

INSKEEP: We live in interesting times, but fortunately, NPR's...

ESTRIN: We do indeed.

INSKEEP: ...Daniel Estrin is here to help explain it. Daniel, thank you so much.

ESTRIN: You are welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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