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Nides: Don’t lose momentum now; put Israeli citizens first

In rare plea, US ambassador urges MKs to back bills needed for Visa Waiver Program

Tom Nides makes unusual public appeal for support from Israeli lawmakers; embassy asks Likud to not vote against legislation

US Ambassador to Israel Thomas (Tom) Nides visits the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial and museum in Jerusalem on December 2, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
US Ambassador to Israel Thomas (Tom) Nides visits the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial and museum in Jerusalem on December 2, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

US Ambassador Tom Nides implored Israeli lawmakers Tuesday to support legislation that is critical for Israel to be able to join the US Visa Waiver Program.

In a rare public appeal, Nides stressed that the legislation would be to the benefit of all Israelis.

“I’ve been working around the clock since I arrived to help Israel meet all the requirements to join the Visa Waiver Program,” Nides wrote on Twitter. “Don’t lose momentum now. This will help Israeli citizens travel to the US — put them first!”

The United States Embassy in Israel alsoreached out to senior Likud MK Yariv Levin, asking the opposition party not to vote against the legislation, a source close to the lawmaker told The Times of Israel on Tuesday.

Opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party had made clear it planned to vote against the two relevant bills in order to stymie the coalition’s attempt to advance the highly popular initiative on the eve of election season. Likud is reportedly holding up the legislation due to a dispute over the election schedule.

The Visa Waiver Program allows citizens of participating countries to visit the US without applying for and being granted a visa, which takes time and money and is by no means assured.

The two pieces of legislation in question would grant the US limited access to Israeli criminal records as well as access to information on incoming travelers — requirements for all countries that join the waiver program.

Failure to pass the legislation would likely delay entry into the program by an additional year because acceptance is based on annual visa rejection rate figures, which are collated in September. US authorities have been optimistic that Israel would be able to secure a rejection rate below three percent, as required of waiver program applicants, given the limited amount of travel that took place during the pandemic.

The source close to Levin said Likud has not reached an agreement with the coalition that would see it assist in passing the legislation. The embassy’s call to Likud was first reported by the Walla news site.

Nides also told Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked earlier on Tuesday that failure to pass the key piece of legislation would significantly delay Israel joining the program.

Nides called Shaked on Monday, her office told The Times of Israel.

Shaked shared Nides’ statement in support of the legislation on Twitter and added: “Perhaps in English, Knesset members in the opposition will better understand how important this law is to the citizens of Israel.”

A similar plea to support the bills was made to the Joint List party, whom US officials told that Israel’s entry into the Visa Waiver Program would also assist Americans of Palestinian descent, Walla reported.

The community is often subject to invasive security checks at Ben Gurion Airport and the Biden administration has raised the issue in its talks with Israel regarding the Visa Waiver Program.

All members of the program are expected to grant “reciprocal” treatment for all US citizens at every border crossing. Granting automatic entry to US citizens from the West Bank and Gaza Strip is expected to be a tall ask of Israel, which regularly limits such passages over what it says are security reasons.

Current policies have left Palestinian Americans with little option but to travel to Amman and try to enter the West Bank through the Israeli-controlled Allenby Crossing.

The US recently proposed adding Palestinian Authority staff to the Allenby Crossing, but the idea has not been warmly received by Israel, said an Israeli official familiar with the matter.

The opposition is refusing to include the two key bills as it negotiates with the coalition about which legislation will be passed ahead of the next elections, according to the Ynet news outlet, which first reported on the phone call between Nides and Shaked.

The Likud-led opposition is holding up the legislation unless it is guaranteed that elections will be held on October 25, rather than in November as the coalition prefers.

Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked speaks with Prime Minister Naftali Bennett during a Knesset plenum session, May 11, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Israel has been attempting to join the Visa Waiver Program for years, but has yet to meet the minimum requirements. In the past, governments have lobbied Congress for an exemption from these global criteria, but the newest push has seen Israel move toward passing legislation that would instead help it fulfill the American conditions.

Shaked and Nides have in the past expressed hope that Israel would be able to join the Visa Waiver Program by the end of the year or by early 2023, but that is unlikely given that the annual rejection rate data will likely not be available until the spring of next year.

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