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Israel will be added to US Visa Waiver Program by 2023, minister predicts

Ayelet Shaked says she’s optimistic after meeting with US homeland security secretary, insists Israel won’t have to offer something in exchange

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US correspondent based in New York

Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked meets with Alejandro Mayorkas, the US Secretary of Homeland Security, on November 18, 2021. (Shmulik Almani/Interior Ministry)
Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked meets with Alejandro Mayorkas, the US Secretary of Homeland Security, on November 18, 2021. (Shmulik Almani/Interior Ministry)

WASHINGTON — Israelis will be able to visit the United States without a visa beginning in 2023, Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked predicted Thursday, after holding a meeting on the matter with US Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas in Washington.

“The two of us are determined to advance the waiver exemption for Israelis. There are a few obstacles but we know how to overcome them. If we succeed, starting in 2023 we can bid adieu to the lines at the American embassy,” Shaked said in a statement.

Shaked also spoke with The Times of Israel shortly after her Wednesday meeting with Mayorkas, describing the homeland security secretary as “enthusiastic” about Israel becoming the 40th country to join the US Visa Waiver Program.

Current 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 seek to ensure that incoming travelers are not looking to remain in the US indefinitely. If a candidate passes the interview process, they must then submit their passport to the embassy, and it usually takes at least 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 in advance.

For years, Israeli officials have sought to convince US administrations to add the country to the visa waiver program, but Jerusalem has been hobbled by relatively high rejection rates, mainly because of recently discharged IDF soldiers looking to travel for extended periods of time, drawing the skepticism of US visa adjudicators.

Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked meets with Alejandro Mayorkas, the US Secretary of Homeland Security and other officials, on November 18, 2021. (Shmulik Almani/Interior Ministry)

But recent months have given Israelis reason for optimism. Former Israeli ambassador to the US Gilad Erdan made the issue one of his top priorities during his just-ended one-year tenure in Washington, meeting with Mayorkas to explain that discharged soldiers are not looking to remain in the US illegally and intend to return to Israel.

During a White House meeting with Prime Minister Naftali Bennett in August, US President Joe Biden said he had instructed his staff to work on adding Israel to the visa waiver program.

The “US administration is very committed to the process of visa exemptions for Israelis, as is as the Israeli government,” Shaked said in her Thursday statement.

Mayorkas tweeted that his office “remains committed to working with Israel to help it meet all Visa Waiver Program requirements.”

“[Mayorkas] says there is a window of opportunity that needs to be taken advantage of, and he is right,” Shaked told The Times of Israel on Wednesday.

The interior minister said she ordered the establishment of an inter-ministerial team of officials to see the matter through.

Israel’s Ambassador to the US Gilad Erdan (R) shakes the hand of US President Joe Biden (C) as President Reuven Rivlin looks on in the Oval Office on June 29, 2021. (Haim Zach/GPO)

A respective US committee will travel to Israel in January for meetings with the new Israeli team, “with the goal of obtaining a visa waiver by the end of the year 2022,” Shaked said.

There are two main “obstacles” the sides will be tasked with ironing out in order to allow for Israel’s inclusion in the waiver program. The first will be lowering visa refusal rates to below three percent by October 2022. Erdan said in August that the current rate is roughly 4.5%.

The other hurdle will be granting the US access to Israeli criminal records in order to adjudicate visa requests from citizens with rap sheets — something that will require Knesset legislation, the interior minister explained.

Once the rejection rate decreases, “other obstacles will be solvable,” Erdan said in August, specifying that these include Israel’s treatment of Palestinian Americans at Ben Gurion Airport, which the US has identified as a barrier to the Jewish state’s inclusion in the waiver program.

Shaked and Mayorkas will hold monthly phone calls to review the progress of the initiative, the interior minister said.

She also raised the issue during her meeting on Wednesday with US Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides, who will be arriving in Jerusalem later this month. Shaked said that like Mayorkas, Nides is also committed to seeing the matter through and that Israel must “take advantage of this window of opportunity” because it may not return.

Asked if she expected the US to demand something from Israel in return, Shaked said, “No, they’re not tying anything to this.”

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