U.S. Rejects Israeli Request to Join Visa Waiver Plan

The United States has rejected Israel's request to join the Visa Waiver Program, which would exempt Israelis from the need to obtain visas to enter the U.S.

The United States has rejected Israel's request to join the Visa Waiver Program, which would exempt Israelis from the need to obtain visas to enter the U.S.

The Bush administration has also refused to exempt Israelis from the new visa requirements that took effect worldwide this July, meaning that Israelis must still undergo personal interviews in order to obtain a visa. They will also need to be fingerprinted once that requirement goes into effect - a move expected in the near future.

However, Washington did agree to try to ease bureaucratic hassles for Israelis born in Arab countries who have encountered numerous delays in obtaining visas ever since the first changes in U.S. visa policy took effect, shortly after the September 11, 2001, terror attacks. These changes state that visas for anyone born in an Arab country could only be issued in Washington rather than through the various local consulates, meaning a significantly lengthier process. The administration has agreed to try to exempt Israelis born in Arab countries from this procedure, but it is not clear when the new arrangement will go into effect.

Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom asked the administration to add Israel to the Visa Waiver Program during his visit to Washington last month. But after examining the request, Washington rejected it out of hand, for three reasons.

First, no new countries have been added to the program for years, and the administration is considering scrapping it entirely. Second, the key condition for a country's acceptance into the program is that less than 3 percent of visa applications from that country have been rejected over the last 12 months, whereas in Israel, the rejection rate is 5-6 percent. And finally, the U.S. feared that many Israelis would abuse their visas to stay on in the U.S. illegally.

Jerusalem, however, does not see the American refusal as the end of the story: The Foreign Ministry said yesterday that Shalom had ordered it to continue pushing the issue.

Currently, only 27 countries are members of the Visa Waiver Program, almost all of them Western European nations with the addition of a few non-Western industrialized countries such as Japan and Singapore. However, there are also a few exceptions, including Slovenia in Eastern Europe and the tiny Muslim sultanate of Brunei, near Indonesia.

Though Israel already meets several criteria for entry into the program, there is one criterion besides the visa rejection rate that could potentially be a problem: The U.S. must deem the country politically and economically stable, since otherwise lifting the visa requirement could result in large-scale illegal immigration. Argentina was removed from the program last year because of its economic crisis.

In the meantime, the U.S. administration has not been ignoring the problems caused by the new rules, which caused the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv to be flooded with visa applications this summer. Some 16,000 applications were submitted during the first four weeks after the new rules took effect - about four times the usual monthly figure - as Israelis feared that with the process now taking so much longer, they had to begin early.

U.S. Ambassador to Israel Dan Kurtzer responded by temporarily reassigning many embassy workers to the consular division, which handles visas, in an effort to eliminate the backlog. The embassy says that this effort was successful and that applicants can now expect to be summoned for their interviews within a week and to receive their visas within a few weeks. For genuine emergencies, it is even possible to obtain a visa immediately.

Though exact figures are not available, the U.S. administration's impression is that so far, the new rules have not resulted in any significant increase in the visa rejection rate in Israel.