WASHINGTON - Twenty House Democrats on Thursday called on the Biden administration to keep Israel out of the Visa Waiver Program, days after Haaretz revealed the U.S. believes Israel is still not in compliance with the necessary requirements for entry into the coveted program.
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.
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.”
Nineteen Democrats joined Rep. Don Beyer's missive to U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, which noted that Department of Homeland Security 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.”
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.
The Beyer-led letter notes that "it is clear that Israel cannot and should not be admitted into the visa waiver program under the status quo," further highlighting the new “discriminatory restrictions” imposed by the Israeli military for entry into the West Bank.
The lawmakers not only call on the U.S. to press Israel on these restrictions, but further assure reciprocity for all U.S. citizens and open a hotline that publishes monthly reports for future visa waiver program evaluations.
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.
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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.
Positive legislative steps, meanwhile, have been made within Israel over the past year. An official with the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem further 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, an 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.”