search

US envoy tames Israeli excitement over progress on visa exemption

After Israeli official says airport entry for Palestinian Americans will be eased, removing obstacle to adding Israel to Visa Waiver Program, Nides says ‘lots of work’ remains

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

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)

US Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides has appeared to tame Israeli excitement over progress toward adding the Jewish state to the US Visa Waiver Program (VWP).

“Seeing some news in Israel on the Visa Waiver Program. We still have lots of work to do,” Nides tweeted on Monday.

On Sunday, a senior Israeli official told The Times of Israel that the Interior Ministry notified US counterparts last week that Israel will ease restrictions on the entry of American citizens of Palestinian descent at Ben Gurion Airport. The official said the move would address a key barrier that has prevented Israel from becoming the 40th country to join the VWP.

While no official entry ban exists for Palestinian Americans at Ben Gurion Airport, in practice, many are denied access and others endure long, invasive security examinations by the Shin Bet security service upon arrival.

It was not immediately clear what new mechanism would be put in place to allow US citizens of Palestinian descent to travel through Ben Gurion Airport with greater ease, and a spokesman for the Shin Bet declined to detail the agency’s procedures on the matter.

The policy also will not extend to the thousands of Palestinians who hold both American citizenship and Palestinian ID cards, the senior Israeli official clarified.

But in order to be included in the VWP, countries must provide reciprocal privileges to all US passport holders at all points of entry into Israel, not just at Ben Gurion Airport. It would also mean allowing thousands of US citizens living in the West Bank and Gaza to enter Israel without a visa — something that Israeli authorities do not currently authorize.

Nides avoided highlighting the apparent gaps that remain between the sides in his tweet, adding: “I’m thankful to have a great partner for this in [Interior Minister] Ayelet Shaked. Looking forward to rolling up our sleeves together to help Israel meet all the requirements.”

Shaked also sought to gloss over any disagreements, tweeting: “Thank you @USAmbIsrael for your partnership and leadership on this important initiative. I’m eager and optimistic to work together and to make this change that so many have waited to see.”

Shaked — who last month told The Times of Israel that Israel would be added to the VWP by the beginning of 2023 — had updated Nides last week on the Israeli decision to ease the Ben Gurion Airport restrictions, the senior Israeli official said Sunday.

A delegation from the US Homeland Security Department is slated to arrive in Israel next month for meetings with Israeli counterparts aimed at advancing efforts to make Israel the 40th country on the US VWP.

Currently, in the absence of being part of the VWP, US law requires Israelis to apply for a visa in advance of their travels 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 seeks to ensure that incoming travelers are not looking to remain in the US indefinitely. If a candidate passes the interview process, they must submit their passport to the embassy, and it usually takes at least several weeks before it is returned with a visa inside.

The timeline has been further drawn out as a result of the pandemic, with some Israelis reporting that the only appointments available at the embassy are for a year hence.

For years, Israeli officials have sought to convince US administrations to add the country to the Visa Waiver Program, but in addition to granting reciprocity to all US citizens, including Palestinians, the move will require Israel to lower its visa rejection rates from the current rate of 4.5 percent to 3%, along with granting the US access to Israeli criminal records in order to adjudicate visa requests from citizens with criminal records — something that will require Knesset legislation.

Recent months have given Israelis reason for optimism, though. During a White House meeting with Prime Minister Naftali Bennett in August, US President Joe Biden said he had instructed his staff to work on adding Israel to the VWP.

read more:
comments
Never miss breaking news on Israel
Get notifications to stay updated
You're subscribed