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visa-free travel

Nides: Israel’s entry to Visa Waiver Program could come this summer

The U.S. ambassador to Israel’s comments came hours after the Knesset approved a key bill related to the program

RONALDO SCHEMIDT/AFP via Getty Images

U.S. Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides speaks to the Foreign Press Association at the King David Hotel in Jerusalem on September 7, 2022.

Israelis hoping for visa-free travel to the United States could see progress on the issue as soon as this summer, U.S. Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides told Jewish Insider on Tuesday. 

“It’ll be done, probably, come July, August, is when they’ll do a review process,” Nides said. His comments came hours after the Israeli Knesset passed a bill that will allow enhanced data-sharing of biometric information between Israeli and American security agencies, a prerequisite for Israel’s entry into the U.S. Visa Waiver Program. 

For more than a decade, Israeli leaders have been pushing for the United States to add Israel to the program, which would allow 90-day visa-free tourist and business visits. Israelis who are now applying for American visas face wait times of six months or more just to receive an interview at the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem. 

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a statement on Wednesday, “Today, we have important news for the citizens of Israel. Just as we promised, the legislative requirements for receiving exemption from US visas have been completed. In the coming months, we will meet additional requirements and in September 2023, the State of Israel is expected to join the list of countries that are exempt from US visas.

On Wednesday, the Knesset approved the final readings of a bill to set up a national center for the collection and analysis of data on flights and passengers entering or exiting Israel.

Israeli and American bureaucrats are racing against the clock to finalize the details of Israel’s addition to the program by September, when the fiscal year ends and the tabulating of visa-related data points starts over. 

“There’s tremendous momentum,” said Scott Lasensky, who worked closely on the visa issue in the Obama administration as a senior advisor to former U.S. Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro. The issue is a priority for the White House: During a trip to Israel last summer, President Joe Biden and then-Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid signed a strategic partnership declaration that listed several shared goals — including Israel’s acceptance to the Visa Waiver Program. 

In January, Israel for the first time recorded a “visa refusal rate” — meaning the percentage of Israelis rejected for a travel visa — of less than 3%, which is a requirement to join the program. This had for years been one of the largest hurdles facing Israel, and it marked a huge accomplishment for a country whose refusal rate had been more than 6% just two years prior. 

“There’s very clear processes here. This is not, like, loosey-goosey. You have very clear rules and laws that have to be fulfilled for one to qualify,” said Nides. The Visa Waiver Program was created by Congress in 1986. Its other requirements include biometric passports and the sharing of criminal databases, as well as a reciprocal entry policy. 

“If you’re a Palestinian American living in Detroit, you have to be able to go from Detroit through Ben Gurion [Airport] to Ramallah to visit grandma,” Nides explained, and vice versa: “If you live in Ramallah and you’re a Palestinian American, you have to be able to go to Ben Gurion and go visit grandma in Detroit. You would think that that’s just common sense, but that’s not what’s happened.” 

Based on previous peace agreements between Israelis and Palestinians, Palestinians are meant to enter the West Bank via Jordan and are not allowed to travel to Ben Gurion Airport. This means that Americans of Palestinian heritage often face long and onerous security procedures at Israel’s main point of entry.

“It’s not that Herculean. Doing reciprocity means people will be treated the same,” said Nides. “If we can do that, I mean, that’ll be a big deal.”

“The devil’s in the details. We’re dead serious about this,” Nides added. 

Netanyahu has faced criticism from Washington in recent days for his proposed judicial reform efforts and his handling of protests. But the political situation in Israel will not affect whether Israel enters the Visa Waiver Program, Nides told JI.

“This has nothing to do with Bibi Netanyahu. This has to do with the Israeli people,” said Nides, using Netanyahu’s nickname. He said that he has made advocating for Israel’s entry into the program a key objective in his tenure as ambassador. “We’re not playing politics with this.”

Currently, only 40 mostly European countries enjoy the benefits of the coveted program.

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