For several months now the government of Israel has been debating the question of whether to exempt Russian citizens from needing an entry visa to visit the country. Ostensibly, the answer should be an unambiguous yes, especially as Israel itself is asking the United States to exempt its citizens of the need to obtain visas for America. However, the discussion of the issue has taken an undesirable turn, turning into an ugly personal and political struggle accompanied by insulting language and accusations of racism.
The proposal was brought up by the Tourism Ministry, which formulated the idea back when Kadima MK Abraham Hirchson was the minister. The belief at the ministry was that waiving the visa requirement would increase significantly the number of tourists from Russia, particularly pilgrims, from the current 80,000 a year to a quarter of a million. Ministry officials note that every year, more than 2 million Russian tourists go to Turkey, Cyprus and Sinai. Waiving the visa requirement would, in their opinion, transform Israel into a preferred destination for tourists from Russia.
Nonetheless, the Shin Bet security service, the police, and the public security and interior ministries either have reservations or are opposed to the proposal. The Foreign Ministry is divided. Some support the idea, but Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and other officials would like to see Russia reciprocate, by exempting Israeli citizens of the need for an entry visa. Colonel Anat Granot, a lawyer and the head of the unit for special tasks at the Israel Police, has written a report on the issue explaining that the opposition derives from "serious concern about the infiltration of criminal elements into the State of Israel." This is because Russia, along with other republics of the former Soviet Union, constitutes "a source for the importation of human beings for the purposes of employing them in prostitution."
At a ministerial committee meeting on the subject last week, Public Security Minister Avi Dichter reiterated the main points of the document, and aroused the anger of Tourism Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch and party head and Minister of Strategic Affairs Avigdor Lieberman of Yisrael Beiteinu. They and a number of other Knesset members have accused Dichter of making statements that smell of racism.
But the accusation is baseless and politically motivated. The Yisrael Beiteinu ministers are seeking to build themselves up at the expense of Dichter, whose entire sin was in speaking the truth. Since 2000, according to police estimates, tens of thousands of women have been smuggled into Israel to engage in prostitution. They did not come from Western Europe, but rather from Russia and the Confederation of Independent States: Ukraine, Moldova, Uzbekistan and elsewhere. During the course of the last few years, about 100,000 people have entered Israel from Russia alone. One quarter of them remained here and have become illegal sojourners.
There are several more disadvantages to the proposal: There is no guarantee that waiving the visa requirement will increase the number of tourists from Russia. The likelihood that Israel will successfully compete with Cyprus, Antalya or Sharm el-Sheikh is extremely slim, in light of the high prices of tour packages in Israel.
Moreover, the proposal to exempt Russian citizens from the visa requirement is not symmetrical. As the proposal now stands, Israeli citizens who visit Russia still will need visas. Israelis who want to visit Russia have to pay $120 for a one-time entry, whereas Russians currently have to pay $17 for an entry visa to Israel. And some Shin Bet officials say that waiving the visa requirement will make it easier for terror organizations to infiltrate operatives into Israel, as Russia has about 20 million Muslims.
And yet, despite the danger of the increase in the trade in women and of the entry of terrorists, serious consideration should be given to the visa-exemption proposal. Israel, which is asking for a waiver like this for its own citizens, cannot deny it from citizens of other countries. That being said, as long as Russia does not reciprocate, by granting a parallel waiver of the payment and the visa requirement to Israeli citizens, Israel should not make a unilateral decision.
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