Israel Has ‘a Lot of Work’ To Do Before Coveted Visa-free Travel to US
Former sumo wrestler Jesse Takamiyama demonstrates the ease of the Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) at the US Embassy on Jan. 8, 2009 in Tokyo, Japan. The system became mandatory on Jan. 12, 2009 to all nationals or citizens of Visa Waiver Program countries. (Junko Kimura/Getty Images)

Israel Has ‘a Lot of Work’ To Do Before Coveted Visa-free Travel to US

Israelis are closer than ever to enjoying visa-free travel to the United States. The citizens of some 40 countries already can enter US territory without a visa for up to 90 days at a time, and Israel has long wanted to join that list as part of the US Visa Waiver Program.

Participation in the program has many requirements, but Israel has been stuck on the first one of them for a while. But no more. On Monday, the US Embassy in Israel announced that the annual rejection rate by the United States of Israelis requesting visas had finally dropped below 3%, a requirement to join the program. Last fiscal year the refusal rate stood at 4.92%.

The US Embassy, in a statement released Monday announcing that Israel had met the visa refusal rate requirement, called gaining entry to the Visa Waiver Program “a complex and laborious process,” and said that the government of Israel “must meet all requirements to enter the program, and a lot of work needs to be done in a very short amount of time.”

During a news conference on Monday after US Secretary of State Antony Blinken landed in Israel, Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen addressed the topic of the program and its requirements. “I want to thank you, Secretary of State, for the good news that Israel received today regarding the visa waiver. I also would like to thank President Joe Biden and special thank you to Ambassador Tom Nides of his personal involvement in this matter. We will take all the necessary measures, including legislation, in order to meet the requirements by the end of this year,” Cohen said.

Before September, the Knesset must pass three laws that qualify Israel to enter the program, including one that allows the transfer of information on Israelis who will travel to the US prior to the flight so that the US can check the background of passengers and if necessary, deny them entry to the US before they even board the plane.

A bill with legislation to fulfill these requirements had been submitted under the last government, The Times of Israel reported. But the opposition, led by current Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, refused to vote to approve the legislation as part of its efforts to cripple and bring down the government by stymieing all of its legislative initiatives. Netanyahu has now pledged to quickly pass the necessary legislation.

In addition, there are several “technical requirements” that Israel must set up before it can participate, according to the embassy, that are “specific to data sharing and traveler screening, including information systems that have to be developed, then implemented, and tested.”

But perhaps the hardest requirement for Israel to meet will be assuring the US that all American citizens – regardless of other citizenships or nationalities – will be able to enter Israel without being questioned or detained, especially those seeking to travel to the West Bank.

The embassy warned that “reciprocity of travel is a fundamental requirement to enter this program. We seek equal treatment and freedom of travel for all U.S. citizens regardless of national origin, religion, or ethnicity, including Palestinian Americans, seeking to enter or transit through Israel. This means that any person who has US citizenship and holds an American passport will be able to fly to Israel on short-term visits of less than 90 days, including travel to and out of the West Bank through Ben Gurion Airport.”

Among the 40 countries that participate in the Visa Waiver Program are Australia, Chile, the Czech Republic, Poland, Singapore, and Taiwan. To take advantage of the program, their passports be electronic, with a digital chip containing biometric information about the passport owner and a digital photograph printed on the passport’s data page, as well as a machine-readable zone. These are already required in Israel.

Currently, Israelis wishing to travel to the US must apply for a visa, a process that can take several months from setting an appointment to a personal interview to a background check. But that could all change on October 1.

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