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Dispersing Knesset likely to delay visa waiver for Israelis visiting US

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 November 20, 2020, in Miami, Florida. (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 November 20, 2020, in Miami, Florida. (AP Photo/ Lynne Sladky)

As the government moves forward with plans to dissolve the Knesset, a senior official in the US embassy warns that the move will likely cause a delay in efforts to add Israel into the US Visa Waiver Program.

“That will be up to the Knesset,” the official tells The Times of Israel. “There are some pieces of legislation that are in the Knesset that are in various stages of being introduced or being read, and it’ll be up to the caretaker government to determine whether those pieces of legislation are enough of national interest to continue to advance, or if they need to wait for the fall.”

One of the steps needed to ensure entry into the VWP is the passing of legislation granting the US limited access to the participating country’s criminal records — a measure that won’t be possible to fulfill once the Knesset disperses itself for an election campaign.

Still, important steps have been made. “In the last 6 or 7 months, Israel has made more progress on getting into the Visa Waiver than they have in previous umpteen years they’ve been talking about it,” says the official. “The current government has taken a lot of strides forward answering the requirements of Homeland Security which really runs Visa Waiver Program.”

Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked and US Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides have expressed hope that Israel would be able to join the VWP by the end of the year or by early 2023, but that is now looking far less likely.

Another essential step required for entry is lowering the visa application rejection rate to below three percent by the end of the fiscal year in September. Israel’s rejection rate in 2020 stood at roughly 6.25%, says the official due largely to mistakes applicants made in filling out their visa forms.
The US still does not have data for the 2021 rejection rate.

The official says that the US has noted improvements in rejection rates following a public campaign launched by the Israeli government urging Israelis to carefully fill out their forms and follow up with the embassy if they are notified of errors in their applications.

“But it is still too early to bet whether Israel will indeed fall below 3% refusal rate,” the embassy official says, adding that it takes time for the US to gather the final figures.

While Shaked had suggested in the past that the September deadline provided Israel with enough time to complete the process by the end of the year, it will still take several months after the end of the fiscal year for the US to adjudicate the new visa rejection rate, and it won’t likely be available until the spring of 2023.

If Israel fails to drop its rejection rate below three percent this year, it will have to wait another year to apply for entry into the VWP.

There has been a significant backlog at the US embassy that has led to Israelis waiting as long as a year in order to secure an interview required to apply for a visa.

The official says some of this is due to the fact that some people are requesting interviews even though they could complete the process online, adding that the pandemic also slowed down the process significantly.

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