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US envoy warns time running out on visa waivers amid Likud refusal to cooperate

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

US Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides (L) and opposiiton chairman Benjamin Netanyahu meet in the Knesset on December 9, 2021. (US Embassy in Israel)
US Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides (L) and opposiiton chairman Benjamin Netanyahu meet in the Knesset on December 9, 2021. (US Embassy in Israel)

US Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides warns that time is running out to advance the three pieces of legislation necessary in order for Israel to be able to join the US Visa Waiver Program by the end of next year.

“Continuing to work hard to get #VisaWaiverProgram done to benefit both Israelis and Americans. Can’t slow down now,” Nides tweets, including an alarm clock emoji.

The three bills granting US authorities limited access to the information of US-bound travelers — as required of all VWP members — has been held up in the Knesset due to opposition from the Likud-led opposition. Nides sought to lobby lawmakers across the spectrum to get on board with the bills, seen as overwhelmingly popular among all Israelis, before parliament dissolved itself in June.

But the effort failed and now it will take the scheduling of emergency sessions in the coming months while the Knesset is in recess to pass the legislation by end of the year. Otherwise, Israel will have to wait until 2024 to be added to the VWP, assuming it meets the criteria.

But an official familiar with the matter tells The Times of Israel that this year may be the only year that Israel will be able to qualify for the VWP, thanks to a combination of low traveling numbers due to the pandemic along with the US embassy’s effort to assist Israelis with their visa applications, which have been ridden with disqualifying mistakes. To date, Israel has never been able to keep its visa rejection rate below the three percent mark necessary to qualify for inclusion in the VWP.

Hours after Nides’s tweet, Channel 12 published an unsourced report claiming that Nides had recently met Netanyahu and sought to pressure the Likud leader to back the legislation amid fears that the effort will be delayed by an entire year if the laws aren’t advanced in the coming weeks and several months. A source familiar with the matter questioned the accuracy of the report, given that Netanyahu and Nides have not met recently.

Nonetheless, Likud issued a statement responding to the report, insisting that US law doesn’t allow for Israel’s entry into the VWP for another year, suggesting that there is no real reason for urgency.

At the end of September, US authorities will receive the visa rejection rate from the previous year. If it is below three percent as the embassy hopes, Israel will be able to join the VWP as long as it meets the other criteria.

While there is no clear deadline for when the legislation must be passed, the bills must be implemented for a period of time before Israel joins the VWP and the US ambassador also must submit a formal request for the country to be added to the program. There may not be enough time to complete all of these steps if Israel waits until after the November election, particularly given the possibility that the parties subsequently fail to form a government and the political deadlock is further extended.

Likud in its statement took issue with the legislation being advanced, claiming it violates the privacy rights of Israelis. The bill is believed to be largely a template of the legislation passed in the 40 other countries who have joined the US VWP.

“After we form a stable government, the Likud will submit the necessary, but responsible, legislation [to the Knesset] and complete the move by March 2023, so that inclusion in the VWP will not be delayed even one day,” the party says.

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