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US official: Demise of coalition could delay planned visa-free entry for Israelis

Senior embassy staffer says Bennett government made unprecedented headway on joining Visa Waiver Program

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

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

As the government moves ahead with plans to dissolve the Knesset, a senior US embassy official warned Tuesday that the development could delay efforts to add Israel to a list of countries whose citizens don’t need a visa to enter the United States.

Israel has been attempting to join the US Visa Waiver Program for years, but has yet to meet the arrangement’s 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 address the American issues.

“That will be up to the Knesset,” the US official told The Times of Israel by phone. “There are some pieces of legislation that are in the Knesset that are in various stages of being introduced or being read, and it’ll be up to the caretaker government [which will be in charge after the Knesset is disbanded] to determine whether those pieces of legislation are enough of national interest to continue to advance, or if they need to wait for the fall.”

One of the steps needed to ensure entry into the VWP is the passing of legislation granting the US limited access to the participating country’s criminal records — a measure that will be unlikely to be approved once the Knesset disperses itself for an election campaign.

On Monday evening, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett announced his plans to call for the dissolution of the Knesset, which will send the country back to elections for the fifth time in less than four years.

Important steps have been made in the visa-exemption process during Bennett’s short tenure.

“In the last 6 or 7 months, Israel has made more progress on getting into the Visa Waiver than they have in previous umpteen years they’ve been talking about it,” said the official. “The current government has taken a lot of strides forward answering the requirements of Homeland Security which really runs Visa Waiver Program.”

Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked and US Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides have in the past expressed hope that Israel would be able to join the VWP by the end of the year or by early 2023, but that is now looking far less likely.

US Ambassador Tom Nides is interviewed by The Times of Israel at the US Embassy in Jerusalem, January 7, 2022. (David Azagury / US Embassy)

“They provided the same sort of thing that every one of the other visa waiver countries has had to provide,” the official explained. “A litany of your borders, your passports, your screening procedures, your antiterrorism methods, your anti-crime methods.”

“There’s been a whole lot of data exchanged in the last six months that simply hasn’t been exchanged before.”

Israeli officials from the Foreign and Interior ministries declined to comment.

The issue of reciprocity — citizens of both countries being subject to similar treatment and requirements at the borders of both countries —  is central in the discussions.

Israel addressed a key stumbling block in the VWP negotiations in December when Shaked told Nides that Jerusalem would ease the restrictions on the entry of American citizens of Palestinian descent at Ben Gurion Airport, on their way to visit the West Bank.

A couple reunites in the arrival hall of Ben Gurion Airport. (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)

While no official entry ban exists for Palestinian Americans at Israel’s main international airport, in practice many are denied and others endure long, invasive security examinations by the Shin Bet security service upon arrival. The policy has left Palestinian Americans with little option but to travel to Amman and try to enter the West Bank through the Israeli-controlled Allenby Crossing.

That development is something the US “considers a key piece of that reciprocity piece of VWP,” said the embassy official.

“If an Israeli citizen can go from Tel Aviv to New York,” said the official, “Why can’t an American citizen go from New York to Ramallah?”

Though the specifics are still under discussion, Israeli security checks for US citizens crossing into the West Bank from pre-1967 Israeli territory would violate the reciprocity principle, according to the official: “Stops and checks in between are not considered reciprocal.”

Still, as with citizens of VWP countries traveling within the US, if a US citizen traveling to the West Bank from within Israel triggers a specific security concern, there is no problem in America’s eyes with that individual being questioned or detained.

“The general purpose should be freedom of travel for Palestinian Americans,” the official said.

An Israeli tank drives next to Erez Border crossing between the Gaza strip and Southern Israel, November 21, 2012. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

It remains to be seen whether Jewish Americans will also be able to travel to Palestinian-controlled areas of the West Bank without additional security checks under the VWP.

The travel restrictions into the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip have yet to be worked out, said the official. “We recognize it’s a different kettle of fish for Gaza versus the West Bank; that is something under discussion.”

The VWP would not change the US government view of the legality of Israel’s control over the West Bank.

No link to COGAT rules

At the same time, the official stressed that new rules about entry into the West Bank released in February by the IDF Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories, set to come into effect in July, are not part of the VWP discussions.

Some media reports in Israel and the US suggested that the COGAT rules and the VWP were linked, and that a failure to reevaluate the rules by Israel could hold up the VWP talks.

“There is no connection between the visa waiver program negotiations and Israel’s desire to get into VWP, and those new proposed COGAT regulations on life in the West Bank and the regulations proposed by COGAT.”

A general view of the almost empty departure hall at the Palestinian side of the border crossing with Jordan in the West Bank city of Jericho, March 10, 2020. (FLASH90)

The COGAT rules deal with extended travel to the West Bank by students, professors, aid workers, and the like, while the VWP is for short-term visits of up to 90 days. The US aim vis-à-vis the COGAT rules is to see that they are as non-restrictive as possible.

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 the official, due largely to mistakes applicants made in filling out their visa forms, including inadequate photographs.

“It’s just going to be getting the number of temporary administrative refusals reduced as much as we can,” the official said.

The US still does not have data for the 2021 rejection rate.

The official said that the US has noted improvements in rejection rates following a public campaign launched by the Israeli government urging Israelis to carefully fill out their forms and follow up with the embassy if they are notified of errors in their applications.

“But it is still too early to bet whether Israel will indeed fall below 3% refusal rate,” the embassy official said, adding that it takes time for the US to gather the final figures.

While Shaked had suggested in the past that the September deadline provided Israel with enough time to complete the process by the end of the year, it will still take several months after the end of the fiscal year for the US to adjudicate the new visa rejection rate, and it likely won’t be available until the spring of 2023.

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.

The issue of Israelis working illegally at mall kiosks — highlighted in a leaked 2010 US State Department cable on Wikileaks — has been addressed over the ensuing decade, the official said.

“The overstay rate among Israelis travelers is minuscule,” the official said. “By and large, Israeli travelers of all ages are really good travelers. They do what they’re supposed to do in terms of their visas then come back.”

Illustrative photo of a kiosk selling Israeli beauty products at an American mall. The individuals in the photograph are not related to the content of the article. (YouTube Screenshot)

US-Israeli working groups are conducting ongoing discussions on the various issues connected to the VWP. The US Homeland Security, State, and Justice departments all have teams handling the talks. The last major meeting was in February, when Homeland Security officials spent three days speaking to Israeli counterparts on aviation security, passports, counterterrorism and organized crime.

Israeli efforts to become the 41st party to the VWP have been underway for years. They got a boost last year when US President Joe Biden told Bennett that it was something he wanted to see through, and that he had instructed his staff to play its part.

Nides told The Times of Israel in February that he hoped to have Israel added to the program by the end of 2022.

Currently, 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 or work illegally.

There has been a significant backlog at the US embassy that has led to Israelis waiting as long as a year in order to secure an interview required to apply for a visa.

The official said some of this is due to the fact that some people are requesting interviews even though they could complete the process online, adding that the pandemic also slowed down the process significantly.

Jacob Magid contributed to this report. 

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