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Israel a candidate for visa waiver program, says top US official

After years of lobbying by Jerusalem, Secretary of Homeland Security Mayorkas says US ‘very, very focused on the program’

Amy Spiro is a reporter and writer with The Times of Israel.

International passengers arrive at Miami international Airport before they are screened by US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) using facial biometrics to automate manual document checks required for admission into the US on Friday, Nov. 20, 2020, in Miami. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)
International passengers arrive at Miami international Airport before they are screened by US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) using facial biometrics to automate manual document checks required for admission into the US on Friday, Nov. 20, 2020, in Miami. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

The United States is considering adding Israel and three other countries to its visa waiver program, a top US government official said on Tuesday.

“We have four candidates in the pipeline: Israel, Cyprus, Bulgaria and Romania,” said US Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas, according to Reuters. “We’re very, very focused on the program,” he added.

Israel has long been lobbying to be added to the US visa waiver program, which would enable all Israeli citizens to visit the United States for up to 90 days for tourism or business. Currently, any Israeli seeking to travel to the US, even briefly, must go through a visa application process.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett raised the issue when he meet US President Joe Biden in the White House in August. Biden said at the time that the pair were “going to direct our teams to work toward Israel fulfilling the requirements of the visa waiver program and get that done.”

According to the US Department of Homeland Security, the program “utilizes a risk-based, multi-layered approach to detect and prevent terrorists, serious criminals, and other mala fide actors from traveling to the United States.”

In September, Croatia became the 40th country to join the program, after Poland joined in 2019.

Israeli Ambassador to the US Gilad Erdan (left) meets with US Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas in Washington on August 13, 2021. (Israel at the UN)

Israeli Ambassador to the US Gilad Erdan, who has himself lobbied for the issue during his time in office, welcomed Mayorkas’s comments.

“We’re continuing to work at full power so that Israeli citizens can enter the United States freely without the need for a visa, as is fitting for our closest ally,” said Erdan on Wednesday. “The clear statement from Secretary of Homeland Security Mayorkas… is a very significant advancement toward achieving that goal.”

Erdan and Mayorkas met in August to discuss the issue, and to determine what steps would be needed to lift restrictions over Israeli tourists to the US, Erdan said at the time.

The ambassador told The Times of Israel in August that the current rejection rate for Israeli applicants for US visas is 4.5 percent — and must fall below 3% to enter the visa waiver program. But Erdan said the rejection rate is based on a misunderstanding, since most of those rejected are young Israelis who have just finished their mandatory army service.

“Those reviewing the requests see a 22- or 23-year-old who still doesn’t have an academic degree or a decent job and assume that they’re trying to illegally immigrate,” Erdan said. But he noted that the overstay rate among Israelis who acquire an entry visa is among the lowest of all countries, at 0.5%. He expressed optimism at the time that the “misunderstanding” would soon be rectified.

Jacob Magid contributed to this report.

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