Israeli envoy predicts progress soon on exempting Israelis from US visa

Gilad Erdan says he told US secretary of homeland security that high rate of visa rejections is due to Israelis recently released from IDF wanting to travel temporarily, not settle

Travelers at Ben Gurion International Airport, on August 5, 2021. (Avshalom Sassoni/FLASH90)
Travelers at Ben Gurion International Airport, on August 5, 2021. (Avshalom Sassoni/FLASH90)

Israel’s envoy to Washington said Monday that he has been working to include the Jewish state in the US Visa Waiver Program, adding that he expects there to be progress soon on the matter after meeting with the country’s head of homeland security.

“It is time for the citizens of Israel to feel the close relationship with our most important ally also when they want to visit,” Ambassador Gilad Erdan wrote in a Facebook post.

“I believe that soon we will see significant progress towards a solution to the matter and I will continue to do everything so that it happens,” he wrote, referring to the fact that Israelis currently need visas to enter the US and aren’t included in the waiver program.

While Israelis are usually granted visas to visit the US, young adult travelers are sometimes refused out of concern that they may stay beyond their permitted time, Erdan said, arguing that was the main current obstacle to Israelis receiving the exemption.

A condition for a country entering the waiver program is visa refusals for the country’s nationals being under three percent. The requirement has long been an obstacle in Israel’s drive to join the 39 countries currently in the visa waiver program, and officials in the past have lobbied for Congress to exempt the country from the threshold.

Erdan said that most of those who are refused visas are Israelis who have just completed their national service in the IDF and are looking for temporary jobs and vacations, not permanent relocations.

US Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas was “surprised at the figures” when the two met over the weekend to discuss visa waivers, Erdan wrote.

US Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas talks to the media after he and Vice President Kamala Harris toured of the US Customs and Border Protection Central Processing Center in El Paso, Texas, June 25, 2021. (Jacquelyn Martin/AP)

Erdan noted that due to years spent in the army, Israelis begin their academic studies and career-building “at a later age than in most countries in the world.”

Young Israelis fresh from the army service want to “open their minds” and travel the world a bit, he said, but “they really aren’t looking to settle down in any other country in the world.”

“This lack of understanding brought many refusals of visa requests” and led to Israel not being included in the US government’s visa waiver program, Erdan claimed.

In March, Erdan, who is also Israel’s envoy to the UN, said he was in talks about the visa waiver program and that Mayorkas agreed to set up a joint team to examine the matter.

Israeli Ambassador to the UN Gilad Erdan speaks to a group of American Jewish community leaders in New York on June 27, 2021. (Shahar Azran)

Jerusalem and pro-Israel groups have long pushed for Israel’s entry into the program, which allows for 90-day visits for business or tourism. The program is seen as a facilitator for trade.

One of Israel’s key issues in the past has reportedly been US requirements for access to Israeli fingerprint records.

Under the current Biometric Database Law, there is a sweeping prohibition on transferring data such as fingerprints to foreign authorities unless it’s for a specific criminal investigation. Foreign authorities are also prevented from keeping the information or passing it on to other entities.

In 2017 it was reported that Washington was demanding that Palestinians with American citizenship be allowed to freely fly out of Ben Gurion Airport as a precondition for Israel being admitted into the program.

Currently, Palestinians traveling abroad do so via Jordan, using the Allenby Bridge border crossing administered by Israeli authorities.

According to the report, Israeli officials were not only concerned about the potential security implications, but also about the legal precedent and the likelihood of Israel being accused of a double standard toward Palestinians with other dual nationalities.

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