Israel has raised the option of changing its border policies to treat Palestinian-Americans the same as other US citizens in terms of granting Israeli visas, in exchange for the Jewish state’s entry into the US visa waiver program, Haaretz reported on Tuesday.
US citizens are automatically granted a three-month tourist visa to Israel, but American officials allege that Israel routinely discriminates against Arab- and other Muslim-Americans seeking entry. This is a key sticking point in preventing Israel’s joining the visa waiver program, which would greatly ease entry into the US for Israelis, who are currently required to apply for visas.
According to an Israeli official cited by Haaretz, Deputy Foreign Minister Ze’ev Elkin met with senior American officials in March and raised the possibility of ensuring that Palestinian-Americans would receive “egalitarian treatment” vis-a-vis visas, in exchange for Israel’s entry into the US visa program.
According to the Oslo Accords, the unnamed official was quoted as saying, Palestinians with dual citizenship who are listed in the official Palestinian Authority population registry are required to enter the West Bank via the Allenby Bridge crossing from Jordan. Israel has therefore prevented many Palestinian-Americans who wish to visit both Israel and the West Bank from entering the country via Ben-Gurion Airport.
Elkin, in his meetings with US officials, said that Israel would exempt Palestinian-Americans from the Oslo clause that prevented their entry into Israel, the report said. There was no mention of a change in Israel’s visa policy regarding Arab- and/or Muslim-Americans hailing from elsewhere in the region.
The United States and Israel have recently created a working group to help Israel advance toward joining the visa waiver program and reducing the red tape involved for both sides regarding visas. The official was quoted as saying there has been significant progress in resolving the outstanding issues preventing Israel from joining the program.
“This is a goal of both the United States and Israel, and it would make travel easier for citizens of both countries,” Julia Frifield, the US assistant secretary of state for legislative affairs, said in a letter sent last week to Rep. Nita Lowey (D-NY).
The letter was the first indication that the US government is dedicating resources to facilitate Israel’s entry to the program.
Aside from the US allegations that Israel has discriminated against Arab- and Muslim-Americans seeking entry, the other major obstacle is a proliferation of young Israelis traveling to the United States as tourists and then staying on to work illegally.
The maximum visa rejection rate for entry into the program is three percent, and Israel’s stands at 9.7%, spiking up from a 6% average in recent years.
The letter from Frifield to Lowey outlined measures that would address concerns about visas denied because of suspicions that applicants planned to seek illegal employment, but did not touch the issue of discrimination, although State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki raised it last month, saying it was a core issue.
Among the measures outlined by Frifield in her letter were a review of practices affecting Israelis aged 21-26 who want to travel to the United States, more education about how best to obtain visas for such travel and expanding cultural exchange programs for young Israelis.
Frifield said the State Department had reviewed the visa refusal rate for Israelis aged 21-26 and found it had doubled from 16 percent to 32 percent in 2013. She said the main factor in the increase was Israelis seeking work illegally and noted the visa approval rate for that age group was nonetheless relatively high.
“We know that despite a two-thirds approval rate, this increase has led to a perception by some that young Israelis are unwelcome to travel in the United States,” Frifield said. “Clearly that is not the case. Israel is one of our closest friends and allies.”
Lowey, who with other lawmakers led demands for a review of the visa rejection rate for young Israelis, praised the measures outlined by Frifield.
“I am pleased Embassy Tel Aviv and the State Department will undertake this full review of visa policies and have committed to making it easier — not more difficult — for young Israelis to travel to the United States,” she said in a statement.