US Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides warned on Tuesday that time was running out to push forward the three pieces of legislation needed for Israel to join the US Visa Waiver Program (Visa Waiver Program – or VWP) by the end of next year.
“We continue to work hard to advance the #VisaWaiverProgram which will benefit Israelis and Americans. Can’t slow down now,” Nides tweeted.
The VWP allows citizens of participating countries to visit the United States without having to apply for a visa, a laborious and expensive process whose success is by no means guaranteed.
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The three necessary bills, granting US authorities limited access to information on travelers to the US – as required of all VWP members – were stalled in the Knesset due to opposition led by the Likud. Prior to the dissolution of parliament in June, Nides had tried to pressure lawmakers of all stripes to pass the bills, which are seen as hugely popular with Israelis at large.
But that effort failed and special sessions will now have to be scheduled, during the Knesset recess, to push through the legislation. Otherwise, Israel will likely have to wait until at least 2024 to be part of the visa waiver program, provided it meets the criteria then.
An official familiar with the matter, however, told the Times of Israel that this year may well be the only year that Israel qualifies for the VWP, due to a combination of two factors: the low number of trips due to the pandemic and the efforts made by the American Embassy to help Israelis to complete their visa applications, which have always included crippling errors. To date, Israel had never managed to keep its visa rejection rate below the three percent needed to be included in the VWP.
— Ambassador Tom Nides (@USAmbIsrael) August 2, 2022
Hours after Nides’ tweet, Channel 12 published a report without naming a source that the ambassador had recently met with Netanyahu and sought to pressure the Likud leader to back the legislation, fearing that the effort would be delayed for an entire year if the laws were not passed before the Israeli elections on November 1.
Following which Likud issued a statement in response to this information, insisting that US law does not allow Israel to enter the VWP for a year anyway, suggesting that there is no no real reason for urgency.
Towards the end of the year, US authorities will receive the visa rejection rate for the previous fiscal year, which ends at the end of September. If that rate is below three percent, as the embassy hopes, Israel will be able to join the VWP, provided it meets the other criteria.
Although there is no specific deadline for the passage of the three pieces of legislation, they must have been in operation for some time before Israel can join the VWP, computer systems must be put in place and the US Ambassador must submit a formal request for the country to be added to the program. If Israel waits until after the November elections, there may not be enough time to complete all of these steps, especially since forming a new government may well take time, prolonging the current political stalemate.
In its statement, Likud says it opposes the proposed legislation, saying it violates Israelis’ right to privacy. The bill would be largely similar to that passed by the other 40 countries that have joined the US Visa Waiver Program.
“After the formation of a stable government, Likud will submit a necessary, but responsible, bill [à la Knesset] and will complete the process by March 2023, so inclusion in the VWP will not be delayed for a single day,” Likud said.
Critics say the only reason Likud is intransigent is to avoid giving the incumbent government a political victory.
Israel’s efforts to become the 41st nation to join the program have been ongoing for years. They got a boost last year when US President Joe Biden told then-Prime Minister Naftali Bennett that he wanted to see the project through to fruition and asked his aides to play their role in this sense.
Without joining the waiver program, US law requires Israelis to apply for a visa before traveling to the US – a process that often takes months, as appointments are required. you at the U.S. Embassy for a background interview, during which consular staff must ensure that incoming travelers are not looking to stay in the United States indefinitely.
If an applicant passes the interview, they must then submit their passport to the embassy, and it usually takes several more weeks before it is returned with a visa stamped inside. The delay has grown even longer since the pandemic, with several Israelis reporting that appointments at the embassy were only available for the following year.
Passing the relevant legislation and meeting the required rejection rate are not the only hurdles Israel must overcome.
To be included in the waiver program, countries must grant reciprocal privileges to all US passport holders at each port of entry. This means that Israel will have to allow all US citizens from Gaza and the West Bank to enter Israel without a visa, something that Israel does not currently grant for security reasons, according to the government.
Similar visa restrictions apply to Palestinian-Americans traveling to Israel from abroad, and those restrictions are also expected to be lifted should Jerusalem decide to join the program.
A source close to Likud MK Yoav Kisch told the Times of Israel in June that the party also had issues with a US stipulation that authorities would be required to be more flexible with Palestinian Americans wishing to transit through Israel.
Carrie Keller-Lynn contributed to this article.