US lawmakers blast critics of visa waivers for Israelis

Pro-Palestinian groups campaign against granting Israelis unfettered access to the US, citing ‘discriminatory’ security procedures at Ben Gurion Airport

Haviv Rettig Gur is The Times of Israel's senior analyst.

Democratic Congressman Brad Sherman of California (photo credit: CC BY cliff1066™, Flickr)
Democratic Congressman Brad Sherman of California (photo credit: CC BY cliff1066™, Flickr)

NEW YORK – Two US lawmakers hit back on Monday at criticism of their proposal to waive the visa requirement for Israelis who wish to visit the United States.

The criticism, leveled by pro-Palestinian and left-wing groups in recent weeks, argues that Israeli security procedures discriminate against Arab Americans who wish to visit Israel or Palestinian areas, and calls on Congress not to ease entry for Israelis into the US while Israel makes entry difficult for certain Americans.

The critics focused on a stipulation in section 9 of the Senate version of the bill, according to which Israel will join the waiver program “on the date on which the Secretary of Homeland Security, after consultation with the Secretary of State, certifies that the Government of Israel…has made every reasonable effort, without jeopardizing the security of the State of Israel, to ensure that reciprocal travel privileges are extended to all United States citizens.”

Critics object to language that seems to condition Israeli reciprocity on Israel making only a “reasonable effort” to do so, and giving Israel the “excuse” that granting US citizens travel privileges not “jeopardiz[e] the security of the State of Israel.”

“Rather than hold Israel accountable for its ethnic, religious, and political profiling of US citizens, S.462 [the most recent Senate version of the bill] would codify into law US acceptance of Israel’s discrimination and allow it to continue to deny visas to US citizens through its unique catch-all ‘reasonable effort’ and ‘security’ loopholes,” read a letter sent by pro-Palestinian groups to senators last week.

No other member country of the visa waiver program, which currently has 37 countries enrolled, is granted such a stipulation, critics noted.

“This is a major test for our legal and democratic system,” declared the Council on American-Islamic Relations last week. “If this bill becomes the law of the land, American Muslims and Arab-Americans would be turned into second-class citizens who could be legally subjected to Israel’s well-documented ethnic and religious profiling” when traveling to Israel.

But the proponents of the bill, including Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA) who introduced the latest version in the Senate and Representative Brad Sherman (D-CA) who introduced an earlier version in the House, argue that the criticism is unfair and untrue.

Senator Barbara Boxer (photo credit: courtesy)
Senator Barbara Boxer (photo credit: courtesy)

“Every country in the world – including the United States – retains the right to deny entry to individuals based on national security concerns,” Boxer said on Monday. The stipulation is central to the visa waiver program itself, she noted: “The US explicitly warns countries that are granted entry into the visa waiver program that we have the right to deny entry to any foreign national who represents a ‘threat to the welfare, health, safety, or security of the United States.’”

Furthermore, the current bill would make it harder, not easier, for Israel to treat US citizens unfairly, she said. “The bill specifically requires a certification from the Secretary of Homeland Security and the Secretary of State that Israel has made every reasonable effort to grant reciprocal travel privileges to all Americans.”

That certification process would not exist without the same Section 9 provision that has generated the criticism, Boxer has said.

“If Israel does not meet this standard,” Boxer spokesman Peter True added, “the country could be blocked from entering the program or removed at a future time.”

AIPAC, which has lobbied for Israel’s inclusion in the program, agrees.

“This legislation does not in any way waive or amend the reciprocity requirements of the US visa waiver program as some critics have alleged,” an AIPAC official said on Monday. “In fact, the bill reinforces the requirement that Israel grant reciprocity to all American citizens or risk its status in the program.”

The official, who asked not to be named, added that the security caveat existed for all program members. “All countries in the program, including the United States, make security determinations about allowing non-citizens into their countries.”

The pro-Palestinian groups’ letter to senators also argued that, “currently, all 37 countries participating in the Visa Waiver Program must grant reciprocity to US citizens and allow them to enter their countries without a visa. However, S.462 would exempt Israel from this requirement, holding it to a lower standard than all other countries.”

Israel currently does not require prior visas for US citizens visiting the country, and grants automatic, three-month visas free of charge upon arrival, a policy similar to what the bill would grant Israelis.

“The criticism comes from the same people who wake up every morning and accuse Israel of genocide,” charged Representative Brad Sherman.

He challenged the critics’ allegations of the scale of Israeli entry refusals for US citizens.

“Over 300,000 Israelis have to go through a [laborious] bureaucratic process to get into the United States [each year], and 21,000 people are on America’s ‘do not fly’ list. And here you’ve got one person saying 100 Arab Americans were inconvenienced, but we don’t know who they are,” he said on Monday.

“This is the regular ‘hate-Israel’ approach,” he added. Israel’s security procedures have not deterred France and Britain, “both of which have millions of Muslim citizens and both of which have a visa waiver with Israel. European countries are less pro-Israel than the United States, but it is they who are enjoying the tourist dollars” and streamlined business relationships created by Israelis’ unfettered ability to travel there, Sherman complained.

Criticism of Israel’s entry into the visa waiver program also unfairly targets individual Israelis for alleged misdeeds of Israel’s government, he added.

“You would think if the Israeli government was making mistakes, and somebody wants to punish someone for the mistakes, we would punish the Israeli government. But they’re arguing for punishing individual Israelis,” by denying all Israelis easier access to travel in the United States. Israel’s entry into the visa waiver program would not constitute “a stamp of approval” for Israeli government actions, Sherman insisted. “It’s just a decision to allow individual Israelis to fly to the US the same way people from Lithuania and Brunei can. We don’t give a stamp of approval to everything Brunei does, or Lithuania.”

In the past, Israel’s entry into the visa waiver program has been hindered by its visitor visa refusal rate. That rate is a measure of the percentage of tourist visa applications from a particular country rejected by US consular authorities, usually due to the suspicion that the applicant plans to work illegally in the US. Any country that wishes to join the visa waiver program must have a refusal rate under 3%; Israel’s is 5.4%. The bills being considered in Congress would remove the refusal rate requirement in Israel’s case.

Proponents of waiving the requirement note that Israel’s refusal rate is high because many young Israelis, often without jobs or assets, travel internationally at a higher rate than other nationalities. They also point to other countries that entered the program in November 2008, when the refusal rate requirement was briefly lifted, including the Czech Republic (who refusal rate was 5.2% at the time of its entry), Latvia (8.3%), Lithuania (9.0%), South Korea (3.8%) and others.

Asked if Israel would eventually join the visa waiver program, Sherman said its chances were “50%, and some of that will be influenced by how high this bill is on the pro-Israel community’s agenda.”

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