Wrapping up stint as ambassador to US, Erdan confident visa waiver forthcoming

After personal plea to Biden in Oval Office, envoy says there’s growing understanding in DC on the matter, obstacles surmountable in coming months; US source far less optimistic

Jacob Magid

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US correspondent based in New York

Israel's Ambassador to the US Gilad Erdan (R) shakes the hand of US President Joe Biden (C) as President Reuven Rivlin looks on in the Oval Office on June 29, 2021. (Haim Zach/GPO)
Israel's Ambassador to the US Gilad Erdan (R) shakes the hand of US President Joe Biden (C) as President Reuven Rivlin looks on in the Oval Office on June 29, 2021. (Haim Zach/GPO)

NEW YORK — Despite serving less than a year as Israel’s ambassador to the US, Gilad Erdan may leave a mark in Washington that resonates with Israelis back home far more than the accomplishments of storied diplomats who have filled the post before him.

Erdan didn’t play a role in brokering historic normalization agreements between Israel and its Arab neighbors like his predecessor Ron Dermer, and he might not have the stature of the last diplomat who held, as Erdan did, the positions of ambassador to the United States and ambassador to the United Nations simultaneously, Abba Eban.

However, after making a personal plea to US President Joe Biden in the Oval Office last Friday, Erdan is optimistic that Washington is on its way to including Israel in its Visa Waiver Program (VWP), in what would be a significant development for the thousands of Israelis looking to travel more seamlessly to the US each year.

Recalling the one-on-one conversation he had with the president, Erdan said during a Monday interview at his New York office that he stayed behind in the Oval Office as the rest of Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s delegation headed toward the exit.

“It was important for me to speak to President Biden directly about this issue,” he said of the VWP. Successive Israeli governments have failed to convince their American counterparts that the Jewish state is worthy of being included.

“I told him that if he’s looking for moves that will receive bipartisan support, this is definitely one of them. It’s a manifestation of our alliance,” Erdan told The Times of Israel, adding that Biden appeared receptive to his pitch.

In this Saturday, March 15, 2020, photo, travelers wait in line to go through customs at O’Hare International Airport in Chicago. (Michael Sadler via AP)

Hours later, the White House issued a statement, saying the Biden administration would strengthen bilateral cooperation with Israel, “including by working together towards Israel’s inclusion in the VWP. The leaders directed their teams to enhance consultations as Israel works on addressing the program’s requirements.”

“I’m optimistic because I know what’s missing,” Erdan said, clarifying that while final approval will likely take another four or five months at least, the sides are much closer to a resolution than they have ever been before.

Erdan will no longer be ambassador to the US if and when Israel becomes the 40th country to join the WVP, which allows for 90-day visits for business or tourism.

The longtime Likud lawmaker is a holdover in the position from the short-lived parity government led by former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Benny Gantz. He is set to be replaced by Bennett’s nominee, former IDF brigadier general Mike Herzog, pending approval from the cabinet. But Erdan will remain in the US as ambassador to the UN, allowing him to see his pet project through the finish line from up close.

Erdan began working on the matter shortly after beginning his stint as US ambassador in January. He reached out to Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, and their offices created joint working groups to determine what steps would be needed to lift restrictions over Israeli tourists to the US.

It was through those efforts that the Israeli embassy, for the first time, got its hands on a breakdown of the rejection rates for Israeli applicants for US visas.

“We learned that the vast majority of those rejected are young Israelis who have just finished the army,” Erdan said.

“Those reviewing the requests see a 22- or 23-year-old who still doesn’t have an academic degree or a decent job and assume that they’re trying to illegally immigrate,” the envoy said, adding that adjudicators don’t realize that these applicants have just finished mandatory military service and are only looking to travel and “clear their heads” for a year before returning to Israel.

To prove his point, Erdan pointed to the overstay rate among Israelis who do manage to acquire an American visa, which is among the lowest of all countries, at 0.5 percent.

The ambassador was optimistic that following conversations with senior Biden administration officials, the “misunderstanding” would be rectified and the visa rejection rate would drop below the current 4.5%. For a country to enter the US waiver program, visa application refusals must be below 3%.

Travelers seen in the departure hall at the Ben Gurion International Airport, on July 19, 2021. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

Once the rejection rate decreases, “other obstacles will be solvable,” Erdan said, specifying that these include Israel’s treatment of Palestinian Americans at Ben Gurion Airport, which the US has identified as a barrier to the Jewish state’s inclusion in the VWP.

The US-based Council on American-Islamic Relations issued a statement after last week’s Bennett-Biden meeting, urging the US president not to grant Israel a waiver from visas “without a firm guarantee of reciprocal travel privileges for all Americans – including Muslim, Palestinian and Arab-American travelers who often face severe entry restrictions or outright travel bans when entering Israel.”

Erdan said he sees no problem with the demand, insisting that all Americans, including those of Palestinian descent, should be allowed to enter Israel, “unless there is specific negative intelligence about a particular individual.”

A security official told The Times of Israel separately that the Shin Bet security service similarly does not view its treatment of non-Israelis at the border as an “unbridgeable obstacle” to the country’s inclusion in the US Visa Waiver Program.

In this October 26, 2017, file photo, then-public security minister Gilad Erdan speaks during an interview with The Associated Press at his office in the Tel Aviv suburb of Bnei Brak. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit, File)

While Erdan spoke of an approval from the US that could be months away, an American source familiar with the matter poured cold water on his optimistic prediction.

“Even if the rejection rate falls below three percent, authorities may want to take time to ensure that the rate is maintained,” the source said. “It’s not like the minute it falls below three percent the waiver will be granted.”

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