Legislative momentum grows for Israel joining Visa Waiver Program

65 senators joined a letter urging the administration to work for Israel’s inclusion in the visa-free travel program before the Sept. 30 deadline

Photo by Nir Keidar/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

TEL AVIV, ISRAEL - MARCH 27: A view of Ben Gurion Airport after flights were halted due to the strike against the government's plans for judicial reform, in Tel Aviv, Israel on March 27, 2023.

Nearly two-thirds of the Senate signed onto a letter, sent Wednesday, urging the administration to work to add Israel to the Visa Waiver Program this year, before an upcoming Sept. 30 deadline, a development that marks momentum in support for Israel’s effort to qualify for the program. A similar effort in December 2021 drew just 18 signatories.

The bipartisan letter comes on the heels of a late May letter from 16 Democratic senators that — while stating support for Israel’s entry into the program in principle — argued that Israel still falls short of the requirements for admission into the program and is not likely to fulfill certain requirements by the September deadline. The new bipartisan letter sends the opposite message.

Israel had moved toward its long-sought entry into the visa-free travel program in recent years, with the goal of finalizing the move this year. Israel’s entry had been impossible in previous years because it fell short of some of the requirements for the program, including a low visa refusal rate. Israel has recently taken steps toward compliance with the requirements, though opponents allege that it still fails to provide equal treatment to Arab, Muslim and Palestinian Americans traveling to Israel.

The letter, signed by 65 senators, notes that Israel’s visa refusal rate fell below 3% in January, meeting one of the requirements. It also states that “since that time the Government of Israel has been working to implement the necessary technical requirements for inclusion” and that Israel’s parliament has passed legislation to facilitate requisite data sharing.

“We recognize that there are still outstanding issues that must be addressed before Israel’s participation in the program can be finalized, and we urge both sides to continue working toward addressing these issues — including the reciprocal treatment of U.S. citizens — to ensure Israel’s compliance with all program requirements before the deadline of September 30, 2023,” the letter continues.

The letter was organized by Sens. Rick Scott (R-FL) and Jacky Rosen (D-NV) and promoted by AIPAC on a recent lobbying mission on Capitol Hill. It is addressed to Secretary of State Tony Blinken and Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas. The signatories comprise 39 Republicans and 26 Democrats.

“We hope that the Department of State and the Department of Homeland Security will continue efforts to ensure that the momentum that has yielded the aforementioned progress is not lost, and that Israel’s accession to VWP is finalized this year,” the lawmakers wrote.

The Sept. 30 deadline — the end of the fiscal year — mentioned in the letter stems from a VWP admission requirement that the rejection rate for Israeli visa applications be below 3%, according to Scott Lasensky, a senior policy advisor in the Obama administration who co-authored an Atlantic Council report on Israel’s VWP bid. 

Israel hit the rejection rate benchmark for the first time this year. There’s uncertainty whether the same benchmark would be reached next year, prompting urgency in Israel’s efforts. 

The rates of visa application rejections, and other metrics for VWP admission, are reassessed at the beginning of each fiscal year, explained Thomas Warrick, a nonresident senior fellow in the Scowcroft Middle East Security Initiative and the director of the Future of DHS project at the Atlantic Council.

“We’re kind of down to the wire,” Lasensky said.

“I really do hope we can get this thing wrapped up, and I’m sure Mayorkas and [Under Secretary for Strategy, Policy, and Plans] Rob Silvers and other folks will be happy to see this finally accomplished,” Warrick added.

Lasensky described the AIPAC-backed letter as reflective of growing interest and involvement among a spectrum of Israel-focused communal organizations — which had, until recently, not taken a strong interest in the VWP issue.

“The AIPAC letter is pretty important, but, in my mind, it’s on the shoulders of what’s becoming a growing chorus, sort of a mountain of broad-based American Jewish interest in and support for this,” he said.

Some House progressives have repeatedly opposed Israel’s entry into the program. 

Concerns about the treatment of Arab, Muslim and Palestinian Americans traveling to Israel are a key remaining obstacle to Israel’s accession. The VWP mandates equal treatment for all U.S. citizens and permanent residents traveling to VWP member countries.

“It’s going to come down to Israeli compliance and a lot of focus and attention from U.S. government officials,” Lasensky said. He described the exact reciprocity requirements under the law for VWP as somewhat vague, comprising a single sentence, and noted that other VWP member states do not share Israel’s political situation.

“There may at the end of the day have to be some judgments that have to be made,” Lasensky continued. “Not everything is cut and dry in terms of the requirements.” He noted recent Times of Israel reporting that Israel will test an eased entry process for Palestinian Americans — an effort that appears to be a move toward fulfilling the reciprocity requirement.

Warrick — a longtime former DHS official — said that “there’s going to need to be a period of satisfaction in which, in effect, no one has any cause to complain that they are being treated in a discriminatory manner” before Israel’s bid can be approved.

Warrick added that technological infrastructure to share information between Israel and the U.S. must also be in place and up and running before Israel’s VWP bid can be approved.

“Even after the enabling legislation is passed, there’s still time to set up some of the mechanics for how that needs to be done,” he said. “There are procedures that have to be worked out and there has to be some degree of experience that the process is working before the final approval can be given… The idea is not that there needs to be a statute on the books that makes it theoretically possible that the information sharing arrangement is in place — it actually has to be in place.”

Even after countries are initially allowed into the program, they face ongoing periodic evaluations to ensure that they are in continued compliance with VWP provisions, Warrick added. In his time at DHS, he said he saw “more than a few occasions in which a country came close to losing its VWP status,” although the threat of such revocation was generally sufficient to motivate it to return to compliance.

“A lot of it is understanding that DHS is quite serious about how this program is set up, and then getting countries to realize that they will not get a pass just because they have close relations with the United States in other ways,” Warrick said. 

Subscribe now to
the Daily Kickoff

The politics and business news you need to stay up to date, delivered each morning in a must-read newsletter.