Israel’s Quest to Join U.S. Visa Waiver Program Falls Short over Reciprocal Visa-Free Travel Privileges for Palestinian Americans
By John Mason /Arab American Contributing Writer
Israel has complained for a long time that wait times for U.S. visas currently top a year or more. Over the past few years, anxious Israeli leaders have been pressing the U.S. to join the Visa Waiver Program (VWP). A major complaint of the U.S. is Israel’s mistreatment of Palestinian Americans trying to return to their homeland via Israel. In the past several days, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) indicated that Israel continues to fail to meet VWP requirements. Just as Palestinian Americans continue to suffer many indignities in trying to negotiate Israeli entry points.
Israel Presses to Join U.S. Visa Waiver Program
Wait times for U.S. visas currently top a year or more. Over the past few years, anxious Israeli leaders have been pressing the U.S. to join the Visa Waiver Program (VWP). According to the news source, Jewish Insider, “When it comes to visiting the United States, Israelis sometimes feel like the proverbial child: Nose pressed up against the window of the candy store: so near, yet so far.” Entry to the VWP would allow 90—day visa-free tourist and business visits. Israelis hope such entry could occur as soon as 2023.
Israelis are miffed. They can enter Europe and most Asian nations without visas. However, for entry to the nation they refer to as their closest and most strategic ally, the U.S., they need a visa. Given long wait times for visas, Israeli leaders are stepping up pressure to get Israel into the VWP. They hope that by 2023 their efforts will pay off. But Israel is still facing obstacles such as high rejection rates for visa applicants. Another is concern over Israel’s treatment of Palestinian Americans at its borders. They cite Israeli visitors’ high annual spending in the U.S. as a plus.
But it remains uncertain how rapidly Israel can respond to it self-imposed constraints. Long wait times for visas, low acceptance rates, and treatment of Palestinian Americans continue to stall Israel’s move into the VWP. Several U.S. congressmen have petitioned the Department of State in support of Israel. it is unclear how much sway, if any, the petition will have. Other congressmen remain skeptical that Israel will find a way to qualify in the near future.
The VWP dates to 1986. Its requirements are strict and Israel is no exception to the rule. It is mostly Europeans who qualify for VWP benefits. Jewish Insider reports, “Israelis look at other countries who are in the program and say, ‘Why not us?’” A former Israeli Ambassador observed, “The U.S. is going through a period of cutting back on immigration. Americans are not thinking about newly demobilized (Israeli) soldiers who want to go backpacking to the Grand Canyon; they don’t want anyone coming in who will burden the U.S. economy or take jobs.”
Optimism for Israel’s Early Entry to VWP Squelched
Israel’s Interior Minister in in 2021, Ayalet Shaked, met with U.S. Homeland Security Secretary, Alejandro Mayorkas, to push for early entry to VWP. Shaked claimed that she was optimistic about the entry. Furthermore, she stated that Israel was not expected to offer a quid pro quo.
Shaked noted, according to The Times of Israel, “The two of us are determined to advance the waiver exemption for Israelis. There are a few obstacles, but we know how to overcome them. If we succeed, starting in 2023 we can bid adieu to the lines at the American embassy.” She spoke a little too soon since over a year later Israel is still not a member of VWP.
The coronavirus pandemic has further delayed the U.S. visa process in Israel. Some Israelis reported that because of the pandemic, they had to wait a year for an appointment at the American Embassy to request a visa. One reason for high Israeli citizen rejections for visas was U.S. concern over Israeli Defense Force soldiers. Visa officials thought that unemployed soldiers wanting to travel for extended periods posed a threat to the American labor market. Israel maintains that discharged soldiers did not want to remain in the U.S. illegally but intended to return to Israel.
Israel had seemed to sidestep the issue of Palestinian American’s treatment at Israeli entry points. That issue still prevails, however, as the Israelis recently discovered.
Israel Still Not in Compliance with VWP Requirements
In the past several days, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) reported that Israel continues to fail to meet VWP requirements. It told a Democratic congressman, Haaretz reported, “that Israel has failed to come into compliance with the necessary requirements to enter the visa waiver program.” In a DHS letter to Virginia Democratic Rep. Don Beyer, it informed him that “Israel does not currently meet all VWP designation requirements, including extending reciprocal visa-free travel privileges to all U.S. citizens and nationals.”
That last line refers specifically to Palestinian Americans trying to return to their homeland on the West Bank. The issue is reciprocity. They suffer many indignities in trying to negotiate Israeli entry points. Thus, they are sometimes forced to travel to Jordan to cross into their homeland over the Allenby Bridge.
Palestinian Americans and other non-white travelers to Israel have always complained they are racially profiled. Congressman Beyer penned a note to U.S. Secretary of State Blinken. It read, in part, the U.S. needs “to press Israel to withdraw the new ‘discriminatory restrictions imposed by the Israeli military for entry into the West Bank; to assure reciprocity for all U.S. citizens, and to open a hotline that publishes monthly reports for future visa waiver program evaluations.”
Even once Israel meets the U.S. deadline to qualify for VWP, Congress must pass legislation to pass the waiver. Congressional Democrats in particular are not entirely disposed to Israel’s entry. They are especially alarmed about Israel’s entry on the grounds of “ethnic-based discrimination.”
Congressman Beyer’s letter makes the point crystal clear. He wrote, “It is incumbent upon Israel as a key U.S. ally and beneficiary of significant aid to treat U.S. citizens with dignity and respect regardless of race, religion, and ethnicity, and it is especially pertinent at this time because Israel is currently being evaluated for entry into the United States Visa Waiver Program.”
We await with bated breath Israel’s compliance with VWP. Moreso, we wait to see with our own eyes, Israel’s end to hassling Palestinian Americans exerting their right to travel to their homeland.
“Inside Israel’s push to join U.S. Visa Waiver Program,” Jewish Insider, 11/24/2021
“Israel will be added to US Visa Waiver Program by 2023, minister predicts,” Times of Israel, 11/18/2021
“U.S. Says Israel Still Not in Compliance with Visa Waiver Program Requirements,” Haaretz, 11/18/2022
John Mason, PhD., who focuses on Arab culture, society, and history, is the author of LEFT-HANDED IN AN ISLAMIC WORLD: An Anthropologist’s Journey into the Middle East, New Academia Publishing, 2017. He has taught at the University of Libya, Benghazi, Rennselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York, and the American University in Cairo; John served with the United Nations in Tripoli, Libya, and consulted extensively on socioeconomic and political development for USAID and the World Bank in 65 countries.
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