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US, Israel sign final agreement needed for visa waiver, but key bills remain stuck

Interior Minister Shaked accuses opposition’s Likud of holding up legislation for ‘political considerations,’ as streamlined travel to United States proves an elusive goal

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

L-R: Public Security Minister Omer Barlev, US Embassy Deputy Chief of Mission Jonathan Shrier, and Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked at the signing of the Preventing and Combating Serious Crime information-sharing agreement, July 7, 2022 (US Embassy in Israel)
L-R: Public Security Minister Omer Barlev, US Embassy Deputy Chief of Mission Jonathan Shrier, and Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked at the signing of the Preventing and Combating Serious Crime information-sharing agreement, July 7, 2022 (US Embassy in Israel)

Israeli and US officials took another step on Thursday toward a long-awaited visa waiver deal between the two countries, signing the final bilateral agreement needed to implement the program.

Public Security Minister Omer Barlev, accompanied by Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked, signed the Preventing and Combating Serious Crime (PCSC) information-sharing agreement with US Embassy Deputy Chief of Mission Jonathan Shrier.

However, there is still a long way to go before Israel is eligible to join the Visa Waiver Program. The VWP requires additional legislation to be passed in the Knesset, which opposition parties led by Likud stymied before the Knesset was dissolved last week.

The VWP allows citizens of participating countries to make short-term visits to the US without having to apply for a visa, which takes time and money and is by no means assured.

There are currently 40 countries in the VWP. Croatia was the last to join in 2021.

Thursday’s PCSC accord is the second information-sharing agreement Israel has signed with the US as part of the process.

PCSC agreements “permit the United States and its partner countries to cooperatively exchange biometric and biographic data in the course of preventing and combating serious crimes and terrorist activities,” according to the US Department of Homeland Security.

Travelers are seen at Ben Gurion Airport, on July 19, 2021. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

Under the PCSC, when a country identifies a person of interest, it may query the automated biometric system of the partner country to see if there is a fingerprint match. If a match is found, personal information can be shared, including immigration and criminal history, date of birth, aliases and more.

A March agreement signed by Barlev and the visiting US Department of Homeland Security undersecretary for policy, Robert Silvers, will allow each side to file 1,000 inquiries a year regarding the criminal records of citizens seeking to enter through its respective borders.

L-R: Public Security Minister Omer Barlev, US Department of Homeland Security Under Secretary for Policy Robert Silvers and interior Minister Ayelet Shaked sign an information-sharing agreement in Jerusalem on March 2, 2022. (Courtesy)

“This is it, all the agreements are signed. Now we just need to pass three laws in the Knesset,” said Shaked at the signing ceremony, accusing the opposition Likud party of delaying the legislation “for political considerations.”

But the necessary legislation is unlikely to be passed anytime soon. The bills in question require airlines to share private information about travelers entering or leaving the country, including the credit card number used to pay for the ticket, their billing address and where else they might be traveling. They also call for the creation of a database with passengers’ information, and a Passenger Information Unit to manage and review the data.

The idea for the database dates back to 2014, when former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government ordered the formation of a task force to study the possible establishment of a passenger database. However, it was not until February 2020, with efforts to curb the spread of COVID-19 concentrated on travelers entering the country, that work on the bill began in earnest.

Benjamin Netanyahu speaks in the Knesset ahead of a vote to dissolve parliament, June 30, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Opposition leader Netanyahu and his party ostensibly held up the legislation in June so as to deny the outgoing government a political victory ahead of the elections in November. Likud has said it voted against the measure because it would curb Israel’s ability to perform security examinations of Palestinian Americans entering the country.

US Ambassador Tom Nides made the rare move of publicly imploring Israeli lawmakers to pass the bills, even calling a senior Likud MK to try to convince him to allow the legislation through.

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

Barlev said Thursday that the agreement had “strategic importance” since beyond its importance for the Visa Waiver Program, it would help the two countries fight crime and terrorism through the information-sharing agreements, which “enable criminals and terrorists to be monitored and located.”

Israel has been attempting to join the US 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 saw Israel move toward passing the legislation that would instead help it fulfill the American conditions.

According to the US Congressional Research Service, VWP countries “must issue electronic passports, report information on all lost and stolen passports to the United States through the International Criminal Police Organization (INTERPOL), and share information on travelers who may pose a terrorist or criminal threat.”

Illustrative: An Israeli soldier stands at the entrance to the Allenby border crossing, the main border crossing for Palestinians from the West Bank traveling to neighboring Jordan and beyond, March 10, 2014. (Sebastian Scheiner/AP)

There are other ongoing issues that must be sorted out.

All members of the program are expected to grant “reciprocal” treatment to all US citizens at every border crossing.

“To become a VWP member, foreign countries must treat all American visa applicants equally; however, Israel has been accused of discriminating against Arab Americans,” read the CRS report.

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.

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%, said a US embassy official, due largely to mistakes applicants made in filling out their visa forms, including inadequate photographs.

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, even if the necessary legislation has passed, because acceptance is based on annual visa rejection rate figures, which are collated in September.

Travelers from participating countries are not guaranteed entry into the US. They are required to be cleared for travel before boarding their flight through the Electronic System for Travel Authorization.

Jeremy Sharon contributed to this report. 

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