Returning Likud MK Danny Danon has reportedly spoken with US Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides to assure him that the party would be working to advance Israel’s inclusion in the US Visa Waiver Program once it returns to power.
According to the Ynet news site, Danon told Nides during a phone call on Friday that the expected incoming government is interested in fast-tracking the necessary legislation — despite Likud having obstructed such efforts in recent months.
The Likud pushback on relevant legislation during the outgoing Knesset was thought to be based on the party’s desire to avoid handing a diplomatic win to the government.
Danon, the former Israeli ambassador to the UN, reportedly reassured Nides that he will personally push for the completion of necessary legislation during the first few months of 2023, to get Israel back on track to enter the Visa Waiver Program by the end of the year.
The VWP allows citizens of participating countries to visit the US without applying for a visa, a process that takes time and money and whose results are not guaranteed to be successful.
The three required bills granting US authorities limited access to the information of US-bound travelers — as required of all VWP members — failed to pass in the last Knesset due to pushback from the Likud-led opposition. Nides lobbied lawmakers across the spectrum to get on board with the bills, seen as overwhelmingly popular among all Israelis, before parliament dissolved itself in June.
During an emergency session in September, one such item of legislation — which allows the state to collect personal information from airlines about passengers — passed a first reading.
Nides tweeted at the time that he was “excited” by the bill’s advancement: “Another step closer to meeting the Visa Waiver Program requirements. More work still – let’s get this done!”
While there is no clear deadline for when the three pieces of legislation must be passed, they must be implemented for a period of time before Israel joins the VWP, computer systems must be put in place, and the US ambassador must submit a formal request for the country to be added to the program.
In August, Likud issued a statement denying that it was delaying the bills for political reasons, claiming that the legislation violates the privacy rights of Israelis. The bill is believed to largely be a template of the legislation passed in the 40 other countries that have joined the US VWP.
The party pledged at the time that once it regained power, it would draft the needed legislation in a form it was comfortable with and send it to the Knesset for approval by March 2023, “so that inclusion in the VWP will not be delayed even one day.”
Israeli efforts to become the 41st country to join the program have been underway for years. They received a boost last year when US President Joe Biden told then-prime minister Naftali Bennett that it was something he wanted to see put in effect, and that he had instructed his staff to play its part in doing so.
In the absence of waiver program membership, US law requires Israelis to apply for a visa in advance of their travels to the US — a process that often takes months, as it requires scheduling an appointment at the US embassy for a background interview, during which consular staff seeks to ensure that incoming travelers are not looking to remain in the US indefinitely.
If a candidate passes the interview process, they must submit their passport to the embassy, and it usually takes several weeks before it is returned with a visa inside. The timeline has been further drawn out as a result of the pandemic, with some Israelis reporting that the only appointments available at the embassy are for a year forward.
Jacob Magid and Carrie Keller-Lynn contributed to this report.