Israeli and U.S. Officials Say Visa Waiver Deal Still Far From Happening

Despite optimistic headlines in Israel in recent months, the two sides are now cooling expectations amid technical difficulties. Meanwhile, Biden could face criticism over Israel's treatment of Palestinian-Americans

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If Israel's rejection rate doesn't go significantly down, it will not be eligible to enter the visa waiver programCredit: Chris Helgren/ REUTERS

Both Israeli and U.S. officials say it’s highly doubtful Israel will soon enter the U.S. visa waiver program, despite headlines this year declaring progress in talks on the issue. 

U.S. Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides tweeted this week that “we still have lots of work to do.” The tweet came in reply to reports in the Israeli media that Israel will begin easing restrictions on the entry of U.S. citizens of Palestinian descent at Ben-Gurion International Airport, a major sticking point in negotiations on the visa waiver issue. 

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Despite the ambassador’s diplomatic tone, the vast majority of U.S. officials and experts tracking the matter understand the significant quantitative gaps that remain for Israel to meet U.S. requirements, and Israeli officials seem to agree. 

U.S. President Joe Biden has spoken positively about adding Israel to the list, and in recent months fast-track negotiations have begun. Six Israeli government offices have just completed the required paperwork, and early next month a U.S. delegation is due in Israel for further talks.

Still, Israeli officials admit that much convincing needs to be done. “It’s not at all clear Israel will eventually be eligible, even after all the efforts,” one official involved in the negotiations told Haaretz.

The toughest demand, the official said, is to bring the rejection rate of Israelis seeking visas under 3 percent, the U.S. threshold for entering the waiver program. Last year, this number was at 6.7 percent.

Israeli officials taking part in the talks, including Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked and the previous ambassador in Washington, Gilad Erdan, have asked the Americans to help Israel lower the rejection rate by not counting rejections based on technicalities such as forms not properly filled out. (Erdan remains Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations.)

U.S. Ambassador Nides and President Herzog. "Lots of work to do"Credit: Tsafrir Abayov /AP

Israel has also asked Washington to reconsider its suspicions regarding young Israelis who seek to visit the United States after their military service but before securing a permanent job.

Still, the officials who spoke with Haaretz say that even if these changes are implemented, Israel is still likely to top the 3 percent rejection rate. And the next annual rejection numbers are only due out in September.

Israeli officials also rejected the possibility of forging a deal with Washington that would involve an American gesture on visas in return for an Israeli concession on a diplomatic issue such as the reopening of the U.S. Consulate in Jerusalem.

“This would require a change in legislation in the U.S. Congress, and we don’t see that happening,” one official said. U.S. officials, however, suspect that Israel might still offer such a quid pro quo later on, whether on the consulate or on one of several other sticking points between the two governments.

The Biden administration, meanwhile, is facing criticism from the left on the subject. Jim Zogby, the founder and president of the Arab American Institute, says the administration’s approach has been disappointing.

Passengers wait in line at Newark Liberty International Airport, in November.Credit: REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz

Zogby’s criticizes Israel’s treatment of U.S. citizens of Palestinian and Arab descent at its entry points, an issue that for years has helped keep Israel out of the waiver program. If Israel is allowed in without resolving the issue, it will be a “slap in the face” for Arab Americans, Zogby said.

“I’m not Palestinian and got that treatment. If you have a Palestinian ID, it should not make any difference at all,” said Zogby, who has pushed Democratic and Republican administrations on this issue for decades. “Many people got the Palestinian ID because Israel required them to get the Palestinian ID for admission in the first place: They wouldn’t admit them as American citizens because they were of a Palestinian descent.”

Zogby says senior State Department and National Security Council officials have assured him that his concerns are key to their deliberations on the matter. “They’re not letting us believe that this is something they’re going to cast off,” he said, while noting that he still wants to meet on the issue with Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas. 

From the U.S. perspective, this issue is even more of an obstacle than the 3 percent rejection rate, which is why Israel has agreed to make some changes recently. Shaked has told Nides that Israel is willing to accept the administration’s request to allow American tourists holding Palestinian IDs to enter and exit Israel via Ben-Gurion Airport, not through the Allenby Bridge crossing that connects Jordan and the West Bank.

But Israel has not yet been decided if this will also include Palestinian Americans currently living in the West Bank.

“The Americans see these people as American citizens above all, while for Israel they’re Palestinians above all,” an Israeli official said.

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