US embassy asks Likud to drop opposition to program

US warns Israeli election wrangling will hold up visa exemption program

Ambassador Tom Nides calls Interior Minister Shaked over key database legislation being held up by opposition in demand for earlier election date

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

US Ambassador to Israel Thomas Richard Nides during his swearing-in ceremony as new ambassador to Israel, at the President's Residence in Jerusalem, on December 5, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
US Ambassador to Israel Thomas Richard Nides during his swearing-in ceremony as new ambassador to Israel, at the President's Residence in Jerusalem, on December 5, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

As the governing coalition and opposition butted heads Monday over which bills would pass before the Knesset dissolves, US Ambassador Tom Nides warned Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked that failure to pass a key piece of legislation would significantly delay Israel joining the US Visa Waiver Program.

The Visa Waiver Program allows citizens of participating countries to visit the United States without applying for and being granted a visa, which takes time and money and is by no means assured.

Nides called Shaked on Monday, her office told The Times of Israel, and is trying to help the bill advance.

The bill in question requires 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. It also calls 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.

The bill was passed by the cabinet’s Ministerial Committee for Legislation on May 26, but has not yet begun to make its way through the Knesset.

Israel cannot join the VWP without passing the legislation.

On Tuesday, Nides urged Israeli lawmakers to support the legislation and not let politics get in the way.

“I’ve been working around the clock since I arrived to help Israel meet all the requirements to join” the program, Nides said on Twitter. “Don’t lose momentum now. This will help Israeli citizens travel to the US – put them first!”

The opposition is refusing to include the bill as it negotiates with the coalition about which legislation will be passed ahead of the next elections, according to the Ynet news outlet, which first reported on the phone call.

The Likud-led opposition is holding up the legislation unless it is guaranteed that elections will be held on October 25, rather than in November as the coalition prefers.

Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked speaks with Prime Minister Naftali Bennett during a Knesset plenum session, May 11, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

The US Embassy in Israel reached out to senior Likud MK Yariv Levin asking for his party not to vote against the legislation, a source close to the lawmaker told The Times of Israel. The source said Likud has not reached an agreement with the coalition that would see it assist in passing the legislation.

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 has seen Israel move toward passing legislation that would instead help it fulfill the American conditions.

Last week, a US embassy official warned that the upcoming elections, Israel’s fifth in less than four years, could delay the process.

“In the last six or seven 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,” the official said. “The current government has taken a lot of strides forward answering the requirements of Homeland Security which really runs Visa Waiver Program.”

Shaked and 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.

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

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.

Travelers arrive at Ben Gurion Airport, on December 22, 2021. (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.

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.

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 — had 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.”

Jacob Magid  and Tal Schneider contributed to this report. 

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