WASHINGTON – A bipartisan group of U.S. lawmakers wrote senior White House officials on Monday in support of granting Israel's admission into the U.S. Visa Waiver Program, which allows citizens and nationals of participating countries to enter the U.S. for up to 90 days without obtaining a visa.
Writing to Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, the lawmakers noted they were encouraged by Mayorkas' remarks last month that Israel was in the pipeline to be added, following the topic's discussion during Prime Minister Naftali Bennett's August meeting with U.S. President Joe Biden in August.
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"We know you share in the goal of ensuring that the benefits that the Visa Waiver Program promises to U.S. tourism, to our country’s national security, and to the U.S.-Israel relationship are realized," the lawmakers wrote.
They added that "Israel’s participation in this program would grow the U.S. economy, strengthen national security at each of our borders, and increase opportunities for people-to-people exchange, which bolsters our already unique bilateral relationship."
The letter was led by Democratic Reps. Kathleen Rice, Grace Meng and Elaine Luria and Republican Reps. Michelle Fischbach, Brian Mast and Lee Zeldin.
Israel has expressed optimism over the past several months that it was making significant progress in meeting requirements to joining the program. Former Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. Gilad Erdan made it a central tenet of his time in Washington, and Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked recently described the U.S. as "very committed" to adding Israel to the program, describing the moment as a "one-time opportunity" that she expects to be completed in early 2023.
U.S. officials and experts familiar with the matter, however, are skeptical that a resolution is imminent – particularly because Israel does not meet the strict, congressionally-mandated criteria for how to get into the program. Israel has struggled to keep less than 3 percent of its visa requests refused, a milestone it needs to pass to qualify for the program. The country blames its shortcoming on the complicated application process, adding that its performance has improved during the pre-COVID-19 pandemic years in which the two countries have been cooperating on the issue.
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Officials in Washington have long been concerned about "reciprocity" – ensuring that all U.S. citizens are treated equal at Israeli points of entry. Many travelers who are not white and Jewish have long complained about racial profiling at Ben Gurion International Airport. Meanwhile, Palestinians with American citizenship travel abroad by passing through the Allenby Bridge crossing into Jordan. The U.S. also requires Israel to provide access to fingerprint data, which Israeli law currently prevents it from doing.
Since Shaked's meeting with Mayorkas, Israel has been working to establish an inter-ministerial working team to handle visa-related issues that would include representatives from the Prime Minister's Office and the interior, public security, and justice ministries. A U.S. delegation will visit Israel in January to examine any progress on the matter first-hand, while Shaked and Mayorkas plan to remain in regular contact on the matter.