The Visa Waiver Program challenge

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Apart from the ever-changing rules for entry that are driven by the pandemic and related health concerns, Americans are afforded free access to Israel and don’t need short-term visas to enter the country. The same is not true for Israelis who want to visit the United States to tour or do business for less than 90 days. The U.S. Visa Waiver Program — which makes entering this country simple for citizens of 40 countries from Andorra to the United Kingdom — does not include Israel.

To make matters worse, the visa process is so backed up that the backlog for Israeli applicants stretches to August 2022. All this is common knowledge in Israel, but not that well known to most American Jews. So, it was interesting to learn last week that a bipartisan group of 58 House members signed a letter calling for Israel’s inclusion in the U.S. Visa Waiver Program – an idea that is very forcefully supported by many Israeli leaders, including Ayelet Shaked, Israel’s interior minister.

There are two principal reasons why Israel is not part of the program: First, it requires that before eligibility can be considered, the United States must reject fewer than 3% of a country’s visa applicants. Israel’s rejection rate was 6.52% in 2020 and 5.33% in 2019. The largest group of Israelis who are denied visas are in their 20s, and have just finished army service. Since most of them have no job to return to in Israel, there is a strong concern that they will overstay their visa and work here illegally.

The second reason is the program’s requirement for “reciprocity.” Although most Americans are afforded free entry to Israel, Americans of Palestinian descent are not. Palestinian-Americans cannot fly directly from the U.S. into Ben-Gurion airport. Rather, for “security reasons,” they must enter the country through Jordan.

We don’t question the legitimacy of Israel’s security concerns. Nonetheless, the optics of Israel barring entry by Palestinian-Americans while it seeks entry into the U.S. Visa Waiver Program are not pretty.

While we welcome the idea of adding Israel to the Visa Waiver Program and are encouraged by the commitment of government leaders in both countries to help make that happen, we question the wisdom of raising the proposal at this time. The simple fact is that no change can occur until Israel deals directly with the reciprocity question and some solution is developed to bring Israel’s visa rejection rate below 3%. If Israel can’t treat Palestinian-American visitors like its other American visitors, and the U.S. remains wary that a sizable number of Israeli visitors are going to overstay their welcome, Israel cannot qualify for the waiver program.

We are concerned that in the absence of a solution for the two waiver-related problems, efforts to change the status quo risk elevating the issue into another public standoff, and another cause of tension between the U.S. and Israel. We don’t want that, and Israel doesn’t need that.

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