Israel clears major hurdle in bid to qualify for US Visa Waiver Program

US says rejection rate of Israeli applicants last year fell below 3% as required, but warns government has limited time to pass needed laws, ensure reciprocity for Arab travelers

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US bureau chief

Illustrative: Passengers head to the departure gates at Ben Gurion International Airport, June 6, 2022. (Gili Yaari/Flash90)
Illustrative: Passengers head to the departure gates at Ben Gurion International Airport, June 6, 2022. (Gili Yaari/Flash90)

Israelis took a significant step toward securing visa-free travel to the United States on Monday after months of efforts by successive governments in Jerusalem alongside the Biden administration to achieve the long-elusive goal.

A statement from the US Embassy in Israel said that the annual rejection rate of Israeli visa applications during the 2022 fiscal year (October 1, 2021-September 30, 2022) dropped below the three percent benchmark for the first time — a key requirement for any country seeking to enter the US Visa Waiver Program (VWP).

Israel still has to pass three pieces of legislation and make a “public, legislative and legal” commitment to ensuring entry rights for all American citizens by September 30, senior officials at the US Embassy in Israel said in a briefing with reporters earlier this month.

The latter obligation has been a sticking point for the US, which has long objected to the treatment of Arab and Palestinian Americans at Ben Gurion Airport, where they often suffer extended wait times and occasional deportations, particularly when declaring their intention to travel to the Gaza Strip or the West Bank.

The senior US embassy officials warned of a short timeline for Israel to fulfill all of the necessary requirements related to data sharing and information systems across various government bodies, which must be developed, implemented and tested ahead of the deadline.

The timeline might be shorter than many realize. US officials are concerned that if the necessary measures are not passed by the Knesset recess in April, it will be too late to pass and implement the legislation.

But if all requirements are met, Israelis will be able to begin traveling to the US without a visa for tourism or business trips shorter than 90 days beginning on October 1, 2023.

Travelers walk to and from their planes at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, Nov. 24, 2020, in Arlington, Virginia (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

“Entry into the Visa Waiver Program is a complex and laborious process. Being below the 3% non-immigrant visa refusal rate is just the one of many steps that Israel must undertake to join the program,” Monday’s embassy statement said. “The government of Israel must meet all requirements to enter the program, and a lot of work needs to be done in a very short amount of time.”

In a video statement hailing the “important progress,” US Ambassador Tom Nides warned that while dipping below 3% was a significant development, “we’re not there yet.”

“Dropping below the 3% visa refusal rate is just the first step to complete the same process as 40 other countries around the world have done,” he cautioned.

“Israel now has a lot of work to do in a short period of time,” Nides continued. “The Knesset needs to act… the whole Israeli government will have to move quickly on many technical requirements.”

He also stressed that the “door will close” if Israel does not complete all the requirements by September.

The Foreign Ministry’s statement put a much more optimistic spin on Monday’s news, saying in its headline that “the visa to the US is being canceled!”

In the text of the statement, the ministry hailed the visa rejection rate statistic as a “very significant step,” though it acknowledged that Israel “still needs to complete appropriate legislation and establish the relevant computer systems to allow Israel to enter the program.”

Foreign Minister Eli Cohen said that he believes that Israelis will be able to visit the US without a visa by the end of this year, and thanked US President Joe Biden for supporting the visa waiver process.

Foreign Minister Eli Cohen arrives for the weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem on January 15, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Since the country is not one of the 40 currently in the VWP, Israelis are currently required to apply for a visa in advance of a trip 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 members seek to ensure that travelers are not looking to remain in the US indefinitely. Candidates who pass the interview process must then submit their Israeli passport to the embassy, and it usually takes at least several weeks before it is returned with a visa inside.

The timeline was further drawn out due to the coronavirus pandemic, with some Israelis reporting that the only appointments available at the embassy were for a year in advance.

A Muslim couple poses for a picture at the Duty Free shop at Ben Gurion International Airport in Tel Aviv, Israel on April 30, 2016. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)

For years, Israeli officials have sought to convince US administrations to add their country to the VWP, but their efforts were hobbled by relatively high rejection rates. Last year, the US Embassy and the Foreign Ministry launched a campaign aimed at eliminating common mistakes made on applications that led to a significant portion of denials, such as the use of an incorrect photo or the failure to obtain approval for a child to travel.

The embassy officials expressed hope that the combination of the PR campaign and the fact that the previous fiscal year saw significantly fewer visa applicants due to the pandemic would be enough to drop the rejection rate below 3% for the first time.

“In a post-COVID environment when travel numbers are going back up, we estimate that it will probably be very hard for Israel to get under the 3% visa rejection rate again this year,” one of the senior officials said. The rejection rate from the 2021 fiscal year was 4.5%.

During then-prime minister Naftali Bennett’s visit to Washington in August 2021, Biden publicly directed his staff to assist Israel in entering the VWP, and the administration pushed for the relevant Israeli legislation to be passed last year. However, the bills fell prey to partisan politics, with the opposition — then led by current Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — refusing to assist the coalition in passing the laws.

Upon returning to power, Netanyahu committed to advancing them swiftly. The legislation includes two new bills and an amendment to an existing Basic Law, which will grant the US limited access to information on incoming travelers and enshrine the so-called “reciprocity” requirement, as all VWP members have done.

A source close to Likud MK Yoav Kisch told The Times of Israel last year that Netanyahu’s party objected to the draft legislation submitted by the previous government because it would have reduced pressure on Palestinian Americans who wish to transit through Israel to the West Bank or Gaza Strip. Israeli authorities have long cited security concerns to sweepingly adjudicate entry permits.

But compromise on the issue appeared to be a non-starter for the US.

“We seek equal treatment and freedom of travel for all US citizens regardless of national origin, religion, or ethnicity, including Palestinian Americans, seeking to enter or transit through Israel,” the embassy said. “This means that any person who has US citizenship and holds an American passport will be able to fly to Israel on short-term visits of less than 90 days, including travel to and out of the West Bank through Ben Gurion Airport.”

Democratic lawmakers warned last year that new guidelines for entry into the West Bank would jeopardize Israel’s entry into the VWP. The Israeli government subsequently amended some of the guidelines, including a clause that sought to limit travel for study-abroad purposes, while keeping other restrictions in place.

File: US Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides (L) and opposition chairman Benjamin Netanyahu meet in the Knesset on December 9, 2021. (US embassy in Israel)

Concerns in the Democratic Party regarding Israel’s entry into the VWP are likely to remain due to the treatment of Palestinians. However, it is unclear whether they will influence the administration’s plan to move forward with the effort.

If Israel is accepted into the VWP, Israelis will be required to fill out the Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) form online, giving brief details about their planned travel. It costs $21 and is valid for two years. The VWP will only be open to Israeli passport holders, though, not those holding Palestinian IDs.

Officials from the US Department of Homeland Security will be tasked with monitoring Israel’s ability to continue meeting VWP requirements, including through regular trips to the region. “We are going to take at face value the Israeli government’s commitment to reciprocity,” a senior US Embassy official said.

The official cautioned the Israeli government against waiting until just before the deadline to pass the necessary legislation — as is sometimes the custom in the Knesset — explaining that subsequent steps must be taken by US officials in Washington that require significant time to complete before VWP entry can be granted.

Lazar Berman contributed to this report.

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