'Palestinian-American travel rights a key reason for VWP'

Knesset okays passenger data law in final push for US visa waiver, but work remains

US ambassador says snapback mechanism to possibly revoke Israeli membership will be included in agreement being crafted, with Washington keeping close eye on reciprocity

Travelers seen at Ben Gurion International Airport in Israel, July 15, 2021. (Flash90)
Travelers seen at Ben Gurion International Airport in Israel, July 15, 2021. (Flash90)

The Knesset passed the final piece of a legislative package needed to open the door for visa-free travel to the United States Wednesday, but US and Israeli officials clarified that there is more work to do before the sides could mark the achievement.

Israel has long sought entry into the US Visa Waiver Program (VWP), which allows citizens of participating countries to visit for up to 90 days without first obtaining travel documents, but has struggled until recently to meet strict US requirements on security, data sharing, reciprocity and more.

The bill passed Wednesday drastically expands Israel’s abilities to track passengers, creating a National Center for Passenger Data Analysis that will gather and analyze personal information on all passengers and crew entering and leaving the country. It requires airlines to share that personal information with Israel and the US.

If the US determines that Israel has met all requirements by September 30, 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.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called the approval of the law “important news.”

“In the coming months, we will fulfill the additional requirements, and in September 2023 Israel is expected to join the list of countries exempt from waivers to the US,” he said.

But in a statement Tuesday, National Security Adviser Tzachi Hanegbi — tasked by Netanyahu with leading the effort to get the necessary legislation passed on time — warned that “we still have a challenging road ahead of us.”

According to a statement released by the Knesset after the law was passed on Wednesday, the National Center for Passenger Data Analysis is meant to serve five national goals — the fight against terrorism; flight security; border security and reduction of illegal immigration; public health; and domestic law enforcement.

The Passenger Data Analysis Center will now have to be developed, tested and implemented ahead of the September 30 deadline, along with the mechanisms created by the other two pieces of legislation that mandated the creation of similar types of data sharing and information systems across various government bodies.

Titled the Law on Powers of Collection and Analysis of Data Regarding Passengers Entering or Leaving Israel, the law authorizes the Passenger Data Analysis Center to record a passenger’s name, address, phone number, e-mail, method of ticket purchase, the last four digits of the credit card number used to pay for the ticket, travel destinations, arrival status, frequent flyer information, seat number, luggage, and information on any minors traveling with the passenger.

The Knesset plenum in Jerusalem on March 13, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Passengers will be informed in writing that their personal information acquired in the ticket reservation process is being shared.

The center will be part of the Tax Authority.

Four agencies — the Tax Authority, Population and Immigration Authority, Health Ministry and Transportation Ministry — are authorized to request passenger information from the center, and the Mossad, Shin Bet and police will all host branches of the center.

Reciprocity

A major remaining challenge is meeting US demands that all US citizens, including those of Palestinian or Arab origin, receive the same treatment at Ben Gurion Airport that Israelis receive at ports of entry to the US, a doctrine known as reciprocity.

The 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.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks to reporters at Ben Gurion Airport on September 25, 2018, before boarding a flight to New York for the United Nations General Assembly. (Avi Ohayun/GPO)

Palestinian citizens are currently barred from using Ben Gurion Airport, even if they are US citizens. They are instead forced to commute to Jordan through the Allenby land crossing before flying out of Amman, an expensive and time-consuming process.

The VWP will require Israel to allow Palestinian Americans to commute through Ben Gurion Airport, just like all other US citizens. Israel currently bars individuals on the Palestinian Authority population registry from traveling through Ben Gurion Airport.

“This type of agreement on reciprocity has never been done before because there’s no country like Israel that [has these types of conditions]. I had to define reciprocity,” US Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides told The Times of Israel last week.

The ambassador clarified that the definition of reciprocity in a formal agreement he is crafting will be limited to travel through Ben Gurion Airport.

“If you want to stop in Tel Aviv on the way to the airport once you get your permit that should be fine, but this is not about [other] travel in and out of checkpoints,” the ambassador said, in remarks that differed from those made by State Department Spokesperson Vedant Patel in January when he said that Israel’s membership in the VWP would allow Palestinian-Americans and all US citizens “to travel to and through Israel.”

Despite the limited nature of the reciprocity agreement, Nides revealed that it will include “snapback” mechanisms, allowing the US to remove Israel from the VWP if it mistreats Palestinian Americans or other US passport holders.

US Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides, at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem, on March 27, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Such snapback clauses exist in other visa waiver agreements that the US signed, and Department of Homeland Security rules require periodic reports of implementation of the deal to ensure continued eligibility for the VWP. In 2002, the US removed Argentina as the country’s economic crisis led to a massive uptick in travelers overstaying their stay in the US.

Guaranteeing the ability for Palestinian Americans to travel through Ben Gurion “is one of the most important reasons for why we’re doing this,” Nides said.

“There’s no wiggle room here,” he said. “Securing reciprocity is the only way we’re going to get the Visa Waiver Program done.”

Background

Successive Israeli governments have been working with the US Biden administration to achieve the long-elusive goal of joining the VWP; for years, the country was hobbled by its relatively high rate of visa application rejections, and an effort for a congressional waiver on the waiver requirement sputtered out.

In January, 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 VWP.

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.

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.

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 Netanyahu — refusing to assist the coalition in passing the laws.

Upon returning to power, Netanyahu committed to advancing them swiftly.

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.

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