Inside story

We’re ‘on cusp’ of entry into US Visa Waiver Program — Israeli official

Biden administration still waiting to see that Israel eases travel restrictions for Gaza Americans, cuts down on harassment of US travelers by September 30 deadline

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

Travelers arrive in the international terminal at O'Hare Airport on March 15, 2020 in Chicago, Illinois. (Scott Olson/Getty Images/AFP)
Travelers arrive in the international terminal at O'Hare Airport on March 15, 2020 in Chicago, Illinois. (Scott Olson/Getty Images/AFP)

WASHINGTON — Israel is “on the cusp” of entry into the  US Visa Waiver Program (VWP), a senior Israeli official told The Times of Israel on Thursday.

Israel has for decades sought to join the program, which enables citizens to travel to the United States without first obtaining a visa, a process that can be extensive and is not always guaranteed. However, getting into the VWP has proven difficult due to the long list of criteria, including a requirement that Israel treat Palestinian-Americans, Arab Americans and Muslim Americans like any other US citizen when entering Israel.

The US is still waiting for Israel to implement some of the requirements for entry into the VWP, and other terms of the agreement are still being negotiated, but the senior official said they were “very confident” that the Biden administration will accept Israel as the program’s 41st member state by the September 30th deadline.

The prognosis came after the US State Department published what it called a “fact sheet” that reviews the commitments Israel has made regarding its treatment of American travelers in order to enter the VWP. The fact sheet appeared to be in lieu of publishing the text of a memorandum of understanding (MOU) the two countries signed on July 19.

The fact sheet stresses that Israel “committed to… extend reciprocal privileges to all US citizens and nationals traveling to or through Israel for short-term travel for business, tourism, or transit.”

It states that this commitment applies to all American citizens, except for those residing in Gaza who are looking to travel to Israel through the lone pedestrian crossing between the two territories.

The US initially refrained from explicitly acknowledging this exception, as it worked to limit its scope, even after the MOU was signed, a US official told The Times of Israel.

Palestinian workers enter Israel after crossing from Gaza on the Israeli side of Erez crossing between Israel and the Gaza Strip, March 27, 2022. (AP/Oded Balilty, File)

Pointing out that Israel allows thousands of Gazan workers to enter through the Erez Crossing every day, the Biden administration managed to convince Israel to allow the 500 to 700 Gazan Americans to at least be able to apply for permits to enter Israel through Erez and even fly out of Ben Gurion Airport.

Those Gazan Americans will not, however, be eligible for visa-free travel directly into Israel, the fact sheet confirms, noting the “security situation” in the Hamas-ruled enclave and the still-in-place State Department travel advisory warning citizens not to enter the Strip.

Another exception to the MOU requirement — obtained by The Times of Israel — that all US citizens enjoy “equal treatment” while traveling through Israel relates to Palestinian-Americans living in the West Bank. Those US citizens, unlike Americans based in Gaza, will be eligible for visa-free travel to and through Israel. However, they will initially have to apply for such 90-day travel authorizations through an app established by Israel’s COGAT military liaison to the Palestinians.

The MOU states that Israel has committed to developing a travel authorization system called Marom by May 1, 2024. This system will be used by all US citizens, including those living in the West Bank.

Until then, US citizens not on the PA population registry will be able to enter Israel without a visa, as has long been the case.

A State Department spokesperson did not immediately respond to a question regarding whether the US would remove Israel from the VWP if it fails to develop Marom in time. However, the MOU states that the US may terminate Israel’s membership in the program if it fails to meet its requirements.

The Israeli Jalameh checkpoint in the northern West Bank, on April 8, 2022. (Jaafar Ashtiyeh / AFP)

Israel began easing its travel restrictions the day after the MOU was signed, and Thursday’s fact sheet said that Israel has committed to implementing the improvements for Gazan Americans by September 15.

The US will then make a final determination regarding Israel’s entry into the VWP by September 30.

“Should Israel be admitted to the VWP, Israeli citizens will be able to travel to the United States for business or tourism for stays of up to 90 days without a visa,” following a transition period, the fact sheet says, revealing for the first time that there will be an unspecified “transition period” and that Israelis will likely be unable to immediately take advantage of the VWP starting October 1.

In the meantime, talks between Israel and the US on the matter have continued.

The US has sent teams from the State Department and the Homeland Security Department to Israel to monitor Israel’s treatment of US citizens at Israeli crossings, an Israeli official said last month.

The monitoring has led to the identification of several concerns regarding Israel’s treatment of US travelers in recent weeks.

These included instances in which Palestinian-Americans were forced to cross through Israeli checkpoints on foot, rather than by car like all other US citizens. There were also dozens of allegations of harassment of US travelers while flying out of Ben Gurion Airport.

Passengers at Ben Gurion International Airport, June 6, 2022. (Gili Yaari/Flash90)

The senior Israeli official said such concerns were raised by US authorities, and that “we’re in regular contact about how to improve treatment [of travelers] while maintaining our security concerns.”

Earlier this month, US inspectors realized that Israel was marking the travel authorizations it has been granting to Palestinian Americans with specific initials that differentiated them from other Americans, thereby violating the VWP’s “equal treatment” clause. Following pushback from Washington, Israel agreed to cease using the special label for Palestinians.

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