WASHINGTON – The U.S. Department of Homeland Security says Israel has failed to come into compliance with the necessary requirements to enter the visa waiver program, Haaretz has learned.
According to a letter led by Democratic Rep. Don Beyer circulating among congressional offices, DHS Assistant Secretary for Legislative Affairs Alice Lugo informed him in late September that “Israel does not currently meet all [visa waiver program] designation requirements, including extending reciprocal visa-free travel privileges to all U.S. citizens and nationals.”
Israel has long sought admission into the program, which would spare its citizens the time-consuming and expensive process of obtaining visas. Israeli membership would allow for 90-day visits for tourism or business, and would be a catalyst for economic cooperation, proponents say.
The main sticking point is “reciprocity” – ensuring that all U.S. citizens are treated equally at Israeli points of entry. Travelers who are not white and Jewish have long complained about racial profiling at Ben Gurion Airport. Palestinians with American citizenship, meanwhile, travel via the Allenby Bridge crossing with Jordan.
“In light of that position, it is clear that Israel cannot and should not be admitted into the visa waiver program under the status quo,” the Virginia Democratic lawmaker informs U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken in a letter, which closes for signatures on Wednesday. It calls on the United States 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.
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Due to Department of Homeland Security and Department of State “statements highlighting the discrimination faced by Americans at Israel’s borders, it is critical that the State Department act to mitigate the effects of these new discriminatory restrictions,” Beyer writes.
Congressional Democrats have been skeptical about Israel’s potential entry since both countries publicly flagged it as a priority since the Biden administration assumed power last year. In a series of letters in June, more than a dozen Democrats pushed senior U.S. officials to prevent Israel’s entry, on the grounds of “ethnic-based discrimination.”
“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,” Beyer writes.
He highlighted the “onerous and discriminatory” new restrictions issued by the Israeli army’s Coordinating Office for Government Affairs in the Territories, which were delayed following international outcry and concerted U.S. pressure, but are now set to go into effect later this week.
“The codification of discriminatory treatment of U.S. travelers still states that these regulations specifically apply to countries which have ‘accepted a visa waiver program with Israel,” Beyer states. “Therefore, their decision to escalate discrimination by codifying regulations is especially disconcerting given the desire of both the United States and Israel to admit Israel into the VWP.”
Beyer continues: “Israel has consistently refused to extend fair treatment to U.S. visitors attempting to travel through Israeli controlled entry points,” despite the visa waiver program’s prerequisite of reciprocity. “The State Department itself acknowledges in its travel advisory that U.S. citizens traveling to Israel have been unfairly denied entry,” he adds.
Because there is no official system in place to quantify how significant a problem this is or to what extent Israel is failing to be in compliance with reciprocity, Beyer calls on the State Department to develop a reporting mechanism, including a hotline, to tally the number of U.S. citizens impacted – including those turned away at ports of entry and those denied visas when applying in advance.
“The strengthening of this critical relationship cannot be at the expense of American grandparents who simply wish to visit their grandchildren, or at the expense of those Americans who conduct business, attend school, teach or conduct any other lawful activity in territories controlled by Israel,” Beyer writes.
Beyond the issue of reciprocity, Israel must lower its annual visa-request rejection rate below 3 percent. The United States and Israel have jointly worked to reduce the rate, though it won’t formally be possible to track progress until the end of 2022. Israeli officials, meanwhile, have long stressed that young Israelis just out of the army make up a disproportionately high number of rejected visas to the United States due to their lack of steady employment and income.
Proponents of Israel’s entry into the program have stressed the matter’s urgency and narrow window provided by Israel’s abnormally low visa rejection rate over the past two years, which is largely due to fewer travelers during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Positive steps have been made over the past year, including March’s formal agreement allowing U.S. authorities to verify whether Israelis seeking to enter the United States have committed felonies (even after the visa exemption is in place) and July’s information-sharing agreement – despite Israel’s failure to enact two laws serving as prerequisites for entry.
An official with the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem noted that the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT) regulations and Israel's efforts to enter the visa waiver program operate on two separate policy tracks, and that any attempt to amend Israeli requirements for Palestinian-Americans to enter the West Bank on long-term permits are not related to questions of reciprocity under the Visa Waiver Program.
"The U.S. Visa Waiver Program is only for up to 90-day stays, while the long-term COGAT permits relate to work, study, and other types of longer-term travel," the official said. Regarding reciprocity under the VWP, the Embassy spokesperson added that “Israel must extend reciprocal privileges to all U.S. citizens and nationals — including Palestinian Americans — as those the United States would extend to Israeli citizens. We seek equal treatment and freedom to travel for all such U.S. travelers to Israel regardless of national origin or ethnicity.”