US official: Coalition demise could delay planned visa-free entry for Israelis

As the government moves forward with plans to dissolve the Knesset, a senior US embassy official warned on Tuesday that the development could delay efforts to add Israel to a list of countries whose citizens do not have no visa is required to enter the United States.

Israel has been trying to join the US visa waiver program for years, but has yet to meet the minimum requirements of the arrangement. In the past, governments have lobbied Congress for an exemption from these global criteria, but the latest push has seen Israel move toward passing legislation that would instead help it solve American problems.

“It will depend on the Knesset,” the US official told The Times of Israel by phone. “There are bills that are in the Knesset that are at various stages of introduction or reading, and it will be up to the caretaker government [which will be in charge after the Knesset is disbanded] to determine whether these pieces of legislation are of sufficient national interest to continue moving forward, or whether they should wait until the fall.

One of the steps needed to secure entry into the VWP is the passage of legislation granting the United States limited access to the participating country’s criminal records — a move that is unlikely to be approved once the Knesset will disperse for an election campaign.

On Monday evening, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett announced his intention to call for the dissolution of the Knesset, which will send the country back to elections for the fifth time in less than four years.

Significant steps were taken in the visa waiver process during Bennett’s short tenure.

“Over the last 6 or 7 months, Israel has made more progress in getting the visa waiver than they have in the countless years before, they’ve talked about it,” the official said. responsible. “The current government has made great strides in meeting the requirements of Homeland Security, which actually runs the visa waiver program.”

Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked and US Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides have in the past expressed hope that Israel would be able to join the VWP by the end of the year or in early 2023, but now seems much less likely.

US Ambassador Tom Nides is interviewed by The Times of Israel at the US Embassy in Jerusalem, January 7, 2022. (David Azagury/US Embassy)

“They provided the same kind of thing that each of the other visa waiver countries had to provide,” the official explained. “A litany of your borders, your passports, your screening procedures, your anti-terrorism methods, your anti-crime methods.”

“There’s been a lot of data exchanged over the last six months that just hadn’t been exchanged before.”

Israeli officials from the Foreign and Interior Ministries declined to comment.

The issue of reciprocity — citizens of both countries being subject to similar treatment and requirements at the borders of both countries — is at the heart of the discussions.

Israel addressed a key stumbling block in the VWP negotiations in December when Shaked told Nides that Jerusalem would ease restrictions on the entry of US citizens of Palestinian descent into Ben Gurion Airport en route to visit the West Bank.

A couple meet in the arrivals hall of Ben Gurion Airport. (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)

Although no official entry ban exists for Palestinian Americans at Israel’s main international airport, in practice many are denied entry and others undergo lengthy and invasive security checks by the security service of the Shin Bet upon their arrival. This policy left Palestinian Americans with no choice but to travel to Amman and attempt to enter the West Bank through the Israeli-controlled Allenby Crossing.

This development is something the United States “views as a key part of this reciprocity element of the VWP,” the embassy official said.

“If an Israeli citizen can go from Tel Aviv to New York,” the official said, “why can’t an American citizen go from New York to Ramallah?

Although the details are still under discussion, Israeli security checks for American citizens entering the West Bank from pre-1967 Israeli territory would violate the principle of reciprocity, according to the official: “Intermediate stops and checks are not considered as reciprocal”.

Yet, as with citizens of VWP countries traveling to the United States, if a US citizen traveling to the West Bank from Israel triggers a specific security concern, there is no problem in America’s eyes that this individual is interrogated or detained.

“The overall goal should be freedom of travel for Palestinian Americans,” the official said.

An Israeli tank drives past the Erez border crossing between the Gaza Strip and southern Israel, November 21, 2012. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

It remains to be seen whether American Jews will also be able to travel to Palestinian-controlled areas of the West Bank without additional security checks under the VWP.

Travel restrictions in the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip have yet to be worked out, the official said. “We recognize that it’s a different ball game for Gaza compared to the West Bank; it is something that is under discussion.

The VWP would not change the US government’s view of the legality of Israel’s control over the West Bank.

Not related to COGAT rules

At the same time, the official pointed out that new rules entry into the West Bank issued in February by the coordinator of IDF government activities in the territories, which is expected to come into force in July, is not part of the VWP discussions.

Some media reports in Israel and the United States have suggested that the COGAT rules and the VWP are linked, and that a failure to reassess the rules by Israel could delay the VWP talks.

“There is no connection between the Visa Waiver Program negotiations and Israel’s desire to enter the VWP, and these proposed new COGAT regulations on life in the West Bank and the COGAT proposed regulations.”

A general view of the nearly empty departure hall on the Palestinian side of the border crossing with Jordan in the West Bank city of Jericho on March 10, 2020. (FLASH90)

The COGAT rules deal with extended trips to the West Bank by students, professors, aid workers, etc., while the VWP deals with short-term visits of up to 90 days. The United States’ goal with the COGAT rules is to ensure that they are as non-restrictive as possible.

Another critical step required for entry is to bring the visa rejection rate down to less than three percent by the end of the fiscal year in September. Israel’s refusal rate in 2020 stood at around 6.25%, the official said, largely due to errors made by applicants in filling out their visa forms, including inadequate photographs.

“It will just be a matter of reducing the number of temporary administrative refusals as much as possible,” the official said.

The United States still does not have data on the 2021 rejection rate.

The official said the United States has noted improvements in rejection rates following a public campaign launched by the Israeli government urging Israelis to fill out their forms carefully and follow up with the embassy if they are informed of errors in their applications.

“But it is still too early to bet that Israel will actually fall below 3% refusal rate,” the embassy official said, adding that it takes time for the United States to gather the final figures. .

While Shaked has suggested in the past that the September deadline gives Israel enough time to complete the process by the end of the year, it will take several more months after the end of the fiscal year for states States to speak out on new visa denial rate. , and it probably won’t be available until spring 2023.

If Israel fails to bring its rejection rate below three percent this year, it will have to wait another year to apply for entry into the VWP.

The problem of Israelis working illegally at mall kiosks – highlighted in a 2010 leak US State Department Cable on Wikileaks – was addressed over the ensuing decade, the official said.

“The overstay rate among Israeli travelers is miniscule,” the official said. “Overall, Israeli travelers of all ages are very good travelers. They do what they are supposed to do in terms of visas and then come back.

Illustrative photo of a kiosk selling Israeli beauty products in an American mall. The individuals in the photograph are not related to the content of the article. (YouTube screenshot)

US-Israeli working groups are conducting ongoing discussions on the various issues related to the VWP. The US Departments of Homeland Security, State and Justice all have teams tasked with the talks. The last major meeting took place in February, when Homeland Security officials spent three days talking to their Israeli counterparts about air security, passports, counterterrorism and organized crime.

Israeli efforts to become the 41st party of the VWP have been ongoing for years. They got a boost last year when US President Joe Biden told Bennett it was something he wanted to see through and asked his staff to play their part.

Nides told The Times of Israel in February that he hoped Israel would be added to the program by the end of 2022.

Currently, US law requires Israelis to apply for a visa before traveling to the US – a process that often takes months, as it requires making an appointment at the US embassy for a background interview, during which consular staff seek to ensure that incoming travelers are not seeking to remain in the United States indefinitely or to work illegally.

There has been a significant backlog at the US embassy that has led to Israelis waiting up to a year to get an interview required to apply for a visa.

The official said this was partly due to some people applying for interviews even though they could complete the process online, adding that the pandemic had also slowed the process considerably.

Jacob Magid contributed to this report.

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