US, Israel sign info-sharing deal, clearing hurdle on path to visa waiver agreement

Sides to grant each other access to criminal records, but larger issue of restrictions on US citizens from Gaza and West Bank remains

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US bureau chief

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)
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)

Israel and the US signed an information-sharing agreement on Wednesday that brings the sides closer to adding the Jewish state to the US Visa Waiver Program, even as significant hurdles remain.

The agreement signed by Public Security Minister Omer Barlev and the visiting US Department of Homeland Security under secretary for policy, Robert Silvers, will allow each side to file 1,000 inquiries regarding the criminal records of citizens seeking to enter through its respective borders.

Granting the US access to criminal records is a condition that must be met by any country interested in joining the waiver program. Israeli officials in the past have said such access would require Knesset legislation, and a spokeswoman for Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked said it still would be required.

“Today we took another step on the road to visa exemptions for Israelis and signed an agreement that was a necessary criterion” for [entry into the waiver program],” Shaked said in a statement announcing the agreement in which she thanked Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, Silvers, and US Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides for their efforts in advancing the matter.

Israeli efforts to become the 40th party to the program have been underway for years. They got a boost last year when US President Joe Biden told Prime Minister Naftali Bennett that it is something he wants to see through and that he has instructed his staff to play its part in doing so.

Nides told The Times of Israel last month that he hoped to have Israel added to the program by the end of 2022. Shaked has given a similar timeline herself.

Currently, in the absence of being part of the waiver program, 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.

Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked meets with Alejandro Mayorkas, the US Secretary of Homeland Security, on November 18, 2021. (Shmulik Almani/Interior Ministry)

Shaked acknowledged in her Wednesday statement that there is more work to do before she can deliver the good news to Israelis looking to travel to the US without a visa, but that she is determined to see the process through.

While the issue of access to criminal records was indeed a condition, much larger ones that Israel has yet to adequately address still remain.

In order to be included in the waiver program, countries must provide reciprocal privileges to all US passport holders at all points of entry. This will mean allowing all US citizens in Gaza and the West Bank visa-less entry into Israel — something Israel does not currently grant over what it says are security concerns.

It places similar limitations on Palestinian-Americans coming into Israel from abroad, which would also have to cease if Jerusalem wants to join the program.

In December Sunday, a senior Israeli official told The Times of Israel that the Interior Ministry notified US counterparts that Israel will ease restrictions on the entry of American citizens of Palestinian descent at Ben Gurion Airport, noting that this was a key barrier for the US in the visa waiver negotiations.

But American-sources familiar with the matter subsequently explained that the gesture was insufficient, given that reciprocity is expected at all entry points, not just Ben Gurion Airport.

Another requirement of entry into the program is for Israel to lower its visa rejection rates from the current rate of 4.5 percent to 3% or lower.

Jerusalem says its been hobbled by relatively high rejection rates because recently discharged IDF soldiers looking to travel for extended periods of time have drawn the skepticism of US visa adjudicators who think they are planning to over-stay their visa.

Israeli officials say they’ve sought to explain the situation of these young civilians to their American counterparts in an effort to bring down the rejection rate. But US sources say bigger causes of the problem are Israeli visa applicants who fill out their paperwork incorrectly, leading to rejections that could’ve been avoided.

As a result, Shaked and Nides shared a number of posts on social media late last year, providing tips for how Israelis can properly fill out their visa applications.

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