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Visa-Free Travel

Israel on track to join U.S. Visa Waiver Program as deadline looms

Israel has been eyeing entry into the visa-free travel program for 30 years, but this is the closest it has ever come to meeting all the requirements

Gil Cohen Magen/Xinhua via Getty Images

People wait at the departure hall at Ben Gurion International Airport near Tel Aviv, Israel, Nov. 28, 2021.

Israel is on track to become the next country to join the U.S.’ coveted Visa Waiver Program, with an official announcement expected from the Department of Homeland Security before the end of this month, officials with knowledge of the process told Jewish Insider.

While some of the fine details of the arrangement still need to be resolved before Israel formally qualifies for the program, those appear to be minor matters and should be settled within the next week, according to the sources. A signing ceremony could even take place ahead of the Sept. 30 deadline set by the U.S.

If accepted, Israel will become the 41st country to join the program, which will enable most Israelis to travel visa-free to the U.S. for cultural exchanges, tourism and business purposes for visits up to three months, and the first country from the Middle East.

Sources said it would likely take a further six weeks for the U.S. to update its Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) in order to allow Israeli nationals to register. If all goes according to plan, Israeli passport holders could be eligible to travel visa-free to the U.S. sometime in mid-November.

“Israel has met all of its commitments, and all that is left is for the U.S. to say the word,” a source in Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs told JI.

A U.S. State Department spokesperson was more cautious, saying that Israel’s application still needed to be fully processed and that Israel would face the same scrutiny as “any candidate for the VWP.”

“We will carefully evaluate the government of Israel’s efforts to meet the program’s requirements, including extending reciprocal privileges to all U.S. citizens – just as the United States does with citizens of all VWP countries,” the spokesperson said.

“The Visa Waiver Program has many requirements beyond reciprocity, and the U.S. government continues to work with the Israeli government towards fulfilling the full range of law enforcement, national security, and immigration-related requirements,” said the spokesperson.

“All these bits and pieces add up to Israel being invited to join the program by September 30, unless there is some major incident between now and then, that’s my prediction,” said Scott Lasensky, who worked closely on the issue in the Obama administration as a senior advisor to former U.S. Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro.

Israel has been eyeing entry into the VWP since its inception 30 years ago, and has made several attempts to meet the strict requirements in the past, but this is the closest it has ever come to taking all the steps needed to be included.

Former U.S. Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides worked tirelessly on the VWP issue with both the current and previous Israeli governments, saying he believed that enabling citizens of the Jewish State to travel visa-free to the U.S. would be hugely beneficial for the Israeli people. He told JI in a previous interview that he did not believe this would be a gift from the Biden administration to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – who, after eight months in office, has yet to be invited to meet with the president at the White House – but to the ordinary citizens of Israel.

Among the reasons cited in Israel as to why joining the program is so important is the emotional connection those in the Jewish state feel toward the United States. Most Israelis see the U.S. as their strongest, closest and most reliable ally. In addition, there are multiple business and travel programs connecting the two countries and, with more than 100,000 expat Israelis living in the U.S., there are also strong familial ties.

In its previous efforts to get accepted into the program, Israel was unable to meet the program’s criteria, which includes issuing biometric passports and machines at airports or border crossings that can read them, as well as giving U.S. officials access to criminal databases, security information and airline passenger lists.

One of the most difficult requirements for Israel to meet has been reducing the nonimmigrant visa refusal rate to less than 3%, a factor it struggled with until very recently, and ensuring reciprocal visa entry privileges to all U.S. citizens, including those of Palestinian heritage or those who hold dual nationalities with countries deemed enemy states by Israel.

Since the early 1990s, based on past peace agreements, Israel has required Palestinians with foreign citizenship along with all Palestinians listed on its civilian population registry to enter the country via its land crossing with Jordan, and not through Ben Gurion International Airport. This has led to many Palestinian Americans arriving at the country’s main airport only to be denied entry, drawing rebuke from some in the U.S. for the unequal treatment of some of its citizens.

Recently, however, the two countries signed a memorandum of understanding regarding reciprocal privileges, which included ensuring that Israel allows entry to all U.S. citizens and nationals, regardless of whether they appear on the Palestinian population registry.

The new travel policies were immediately implemented, including for Palestinian holders of U.S. passports living in the West Bank. Due to the complicated security situation in Gaza, however, Israel requested more time to create procedures that will allow them to enter Israel via the Erez Border Crossing. The start of those procedures is expected to commence next week.

“All U.S. citizens traveling to Israel with a valid U.S. passport are to be recognized by Israel as U.S. citizens and receive equal treatment without regard to race, religion, or national origin,” a statement issued by the U.S. Embassy in Israel last month read.

“All U.S. citizens who request entry into Israel for short-term visits are expected to be approved, barring legitimate security, criminal, health, or immigration concerns – which could justify a different result based on a uniform application of Israeli legal standards,” clarified the statement.    

In order to facilitate a system whereby the estimated 50,000 Palestinians living in the West Bank may enter Israel, Israel’s military authority that coordinates government activities in the Palestinian territories, COGAT, created an online application form easing their crossing through land checkpoints into Israel.  

According to statistics obtained by JI, more than 12,000 Palestinians with U.S. passports residing in the West Bank have already made use of the new visa-free arrangement and entered Israel, with an estimated 5,000 dual U.S. citizens listed on Israel’s Palestinian population registry landing in the country from abroad.

In May 2024, Israel is expected to launch Marom, a new travel authorization system for all foreign visitors to Israel, including U.S. citizens. That service will also be available to Palestinians with U.S. citizenship who reside in the West Bank or Gaza and who wish to travel to and through Israel.

In its statement, the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem said that Israel is currently working to train its border personnel on how to implement this new and sensitive travel policy. It urged U.S. citizens who believe they have been denied entry or faced discriminatory treatment are able to report it to the American Citizens Services Unit at the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem or at the Embassy Branch Office in Tel Aviv, using the online reporting form. 

In Israel, the security establishment has expressed some concerns about the new entry arrangements, particularly in the context of the so-called “family reunification” law, which prohibits Palestinians from residing permanently in Israel even if they marry Israeli citizens. Palestinians with American citizenship will be able to circumvent that law under the new system, some believe.

Last week, Israeli Tourism Minister Haim Katz, one of the more moderate figures in Netanyahu’s hardline government, also reportedly expressed his concerns about allowing thousands of Palestinians into Israel.

Israel is in a “crazy chase after the visa to the U.S. that will require us to let unwanted Palestinian factors into Israel,” he reportedly said in a recent cabinet meeting, according to Israeli media.

A spokesperson for the minister would not confirm or deny the report, telling JI, “This is a complex topic, with clear positive aspects, along with security concessions.”

In the U.S., some progressive legislators have also expressed concerns about Israel joining the program.

Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), who previously argued that Israel is not ready to enter the program this year, told JI this week that he hadn’t received any recent updates from the administration but that the changes to Israeli policy had not ameliorated his concerns.

“I think there are still some fundamental problems,” Van Hollen said.

Senior political correspondent Lahav Harkov, Washington correspondent Gabby Deutch and Capitol Hill reporter Marc Rod contributed to this report.

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