Moldova, Ukraine warn new Israeli travel rules threaten visa-free regimes

New requirement for visitors to obtain a so-called Electronic Travel Authorization could prompt Chisinau, Kyiv to implement ‘reciprocal decisions,’ say ambassadors

Sam Sokol is the Times of Israel's political correspondent. He was previously a reporter for the Jerusalem Post, Jewish Telegraphic Agency and Haaretz. He is the author of "Putin’s Hybrid War and the Jews"

Jewish pilgrims arrive in Uman, Ukraine ahead of the Jewish holiday of Rosh Hashanah, September 14, 2023. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)
Jewish pilgrims arrive in Uman, Ukraine ahead of the Jewish holiday of Rosh Hashanah, September 14, 2023. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

The ambassadors of Moldova and Ukraine last week warned that new travel rules requiring foreign visitors to obtain prior authorization before traveling to Israel could imperil both their countries’ visa-free deals with the Jewish state, and negatively impact the thousands of Orthodox pilgrims who travel to Eastern Europe every year.

According to the Interior Ministry’s Population and Immigration Authority (PIBA), beginning in August visitors from visa-exempt countries will be required to obtain a so-called ETA-IL (Electronic Travel Authorization) before being allowed into the country.

Receiving an ETA “only allows you to reach the border crossing into Israel, but does not grant you permission to enter or reside in Israel,” PIBA says on its website. It explains that “when you arrive at the border crossing, you will be checked by a border control officer, who may determine that you are not authorized to enter Israel.”

In a statement, Moldovan Ambassador Alex Roitman said that his country will be forced to “respond with reciprocal decisions.”

Despite having enjoyed a visa-free regime for the past decade, multiple Moldovan citizens have been denied entry in the past. Once the new rules are in place, Chisinau will find itself “obliged to impose a similar preliminary approval system for the Israeli citizens.”

“The reciprocal measures will also affect thousands of religious pilgrims that go to Ukraine annually through the territory of Moldova,” he added, referring to the tens of thousands of Orthodox Jews who travel to the central Ukrainian city of Uman every year to spend the Rosh Hashanah holiday at the tomb of the late Hasidic leader Rebbe Nachman of Breslov.

“The Republic of Moldova remains committed to the promotion of bilateral ties with the State of Israel in the spirit of mutual respect and reciprocity and is ready to engage in discussions and negotiations regarding this particular matter for the benefit of two countries and their citizens,” Roitman stated.

Since the beginning of the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, Kyiv has attempted to dissuade pilgrims from congregating in Uman but despite the closure of Ukrainian airspace to commercial flights, an estimated 32,000 pilgrims made their way to Uman via Poland and Moldova last year.

Taking to Twitter last Thursday, Ukrainian Ambassador Yevgen Korniychuk said that “recent Israeli actions, such as restricting Ukrainian refugees and denying entry to many Ukrainians, have strained this relationship. The latest requirement effectively ends the visa-free regime.”

“In response, Ukraine will impose similar pre-approval requirements for Israeli citizens, including pilgrims. The specifics of these electronic visas are being considered in Kyiv. This reciprocal action will impact thousands of religious pilgrims visiting Ukraine annually,” he wrote.

Speaking with the Times of Israel on Sunday, Korniychuk said that the new Israeli rules “will create additional problems for our people and as you know we’ve had issues with the Interior Ministry before.”

The Ukrainian government has long complained of the treatment accorded to its citizens, including refugees fleeing to Israel to escape the Eastern European war. Last year, Korniychuk threatened to close the border to pilgrims to retaliate Israel’s deportation of Ukrainian tourists.

According to Korniychuk, the Ukrainians have had issues with some Israeli travelers, including “a certain number” who attempted to breach the country’s border in 2020 in violation of pandemic restrictions, to spend Rosh Hashanah in Uman.

“A decision has not [been] taken yet but we are discussing this internally and will most likely be using reciprocity,” he said.

Korniychuk said that while he doesn’t believe Israel had intended to be “unfriendly” in this move, “unfortunately we are having troubles with Israel since the war started and this would create an additional burden.”

This year, Rosh Hashanah falls on the evening of October 2.

Illustrative: People stand in line to go through passport control at Ben Gurion International Airport in Israel, September 21, 2008. (Yossi Zamir/Flash90)

In response to an inquiry from the Times of Israel, a Foreign Ministry spokesman noted that “the United States, Australia, Canada, and the European Union employ similar protocols.”

“The ETA-IL is not a visa but a registration system that can be accessed online and does not require contacting the Embassy or Consulate. The form must be filled out 72 hours before traveling to Israel once every two years,” the spokesman explained, arguing that the new system “will allow for easy entry to Israel and will minimize any aggravation while entering Israel.”

“We are in contact with the countries in question and have engaged in consular dialogues to mitigate any questions that might arise,” he added.

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