columnU.S.-Israel Relations

Is Israel forfeiting border security in hopes of obtaining US visa waiver status?

The full extent of the capitulation to the Biden administration became apparent this week, when COGAT removed several entry regulations pertaining to foreign visitors to Judea and Samaria.

An Israeli passport with visa and entry stamps. Credit: Israel.Travel.
An Israeli passport with visa and entry stamps. Credit: Israel.Travel.
Ruthie Blum. Credit: Courtesy.
Ruthie Blum
Ruthie Blum, an author and award-winning columnist, is a former adviser at the office of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

The announcement last October by U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas that Israel was among four countries being considered for inclusion in the State Department’s Bureau of Consular Affairs visa-waiver program should have been cause for relief. Israelis embarking on trips to America have always anticipated their interviews with clerks at the U.S. embassy with trepidation about having their request for a visa rejected.

To stave off this possibility, they arrive equipped with reams of documents (such as university transcripts, rental contracts or deeds of home ownership; or salary slips) to prove that their visit will be temporary.

But it was pretty clear that Washington was dangling a coveted carrot that came with a stick. President Joe Biden’s administration knew full well that Israel has been trying since 2005 to obtain visa-waiver status, as is enjoyed by 40 other countries, whose citizens are free to enter America for up to 90 days without a visa, as long as they register electronically before boarding a flight.

Two U.S. congressional bills in 2013, one proposed by Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) and a different version by Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), contained clauses about adding Israel to the visa-waiver program.

The then-administration of Barack Obama felt that such legislation would be unfair to Muslims, on the grounds that it didn’t adequately tackle the problem of Israel’s “discriminatory” practices against Arab Americans en route to the Palestinian Authority.

One example cited was Israel’s preventing certain Arab visitors from landing at Ben-Gurion Airport, compelling them instead to fly to Jordan, and go the rest of the way by land.

A letter to then-Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. Michael Oren, signed by 16 members of Congress—15 Democrats and one Republican—accused Israeli border officials of “disproportionately singling out, detaining and denying entry to Arab and Muslim Americans.”

Oren responded in a letter of his own, presenting the facts on the ground: that a total of 142 Americans were denied entry into Israel in 2012, compared to 626,000 who were welcomed with no problem.

He pointed out that this put the Israeli refusal rate at 0.023%, while the American refusal rate for Israelis applying for U.S. visas during the same period was 5.4%.

Fast forward to 2017, during the presidency of Donald Trump. Despite optimism expressed by certain Israeli politicians that the issue would finally be resolved, a State Department spokesperson told Globes that Israel did not “at this stage” meet the “very strict requirements” of the visa-exemption program. “Specifically,” he said, “the administration in Washington continues to be concerned about the unequal treatments given to U.S. Muslims at entry points.”

Enter Team Biden at the beginning of 2021. With the advent, shortly thereafter, of the so-called “change” government in Jerusalem, Washington saw an opportunity for leverage.

During meetings in D.C. with then-Prime Minister Naftali Bennett a year ago in August—less than two months before Mayorkas’s statement—Biden said that his administration would strengthen bilateral cooperation with Israel in multiple ways, “including by working together towards Israel’s inclusion in the visa-waiver program.” The White House later reported that the two leaders directed their respective teams to “enhance consultations as Israel works on addressing the program’s requirements.”

It was a red flag that would have done a bullfighter proud. Yet Bennett and Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked apparently didn’t see it that way. They were too busy trying to illustrate that their soft approach to the Democrats in power would serve to restore the bipartisan support for Israel that their nemesis, Benjamin Netanyahu, ostensibly eroded.

Though within months, the Israeli government fell and Yair Lapid replaced Bennett as interim prime minister, the visa-waiver carrot-and-stick negotiations, like the fantasy about chummy relations with Biden being achieved through appeasement, never ceased.

The full extent of the travesty, and inevitable humiliation, became apparent this week. Following pressure from Biden and his buddies in Europe—and as part of the attempt to receive visa-waiver status—the Israeli leadership removed the security rules for foreign (i.e. Arab-American) travelers to Judea and Samaria (the West Bank).

The Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT), the Israeli Defense Ministry agency responsible for Palestinian civil affairs, released these revised regulations on Sunday. The new version excludes a previous requirement that “[a] foreigner married to a resident of the Area, or forming a couple with one, must proceed to make arrangements…before arriving at the Area. If the relationship starts after the foreigner arrived at the Area, then the authorized COGAT official must be informed in writing within 30 days of the relationship’s start. At the same time, an application must be submitted to the Palestinian Authority for formalizing the status.”

In addition, COGAT extended the visas of such visitors from 90 to 180 days and removed quotas on visiting academics and students at P.A. universities.

Finally, the Lapid government agreed to a two-year trial period, during which other limitations might be eliminated. As for granting Israel visa-waiver status, well, there’s no deadline for that. Naturally.

Nor was the Biden administration pleased by what it considers to be insufficient capitulation.

“Today COGAT published its revised guidelines,” tweeted U.S. Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides on Sunday. “Since February, the U.S. Embassy Jerusalem, the U.S. Office of Palestinian Affairs and I have aggressively engaged with the Israeli government on these draft rules—and we’ll continue to do so in the 45-day lead up to implementation and during the two-year pilot period. I continue to have concerns with the published protocols, particularly regarding COGAT’s role in determining whether individuals invited by Palestinian academic institutions are qualified to enter the West Bank, and the potential negative impact on family unity.”

He concluded: “It is important to ensure all of these regulations are developed in coordination with key stakeholders, including the Palestinian Authority. I fully expect the government of Israel to make necessary adjustments during the pilot period to ensure transparency, as well as the fair and equal treatment of all U.S. citizens and other foreign nationals traveling to the West Bank.”

Nide’s outrageous comments come in the midst of what Israeli defense officials are viewing as the potential start of a “third intifada.” Indeed, the terrorism emanating from the P.A. and among Israel’s Arab citizens is expected to escalate ahead of and during the Jewish high holidays, which begin on Sept. 25.

Putting Israeli travelers to the United States on a par with Palestinian-Arab Americans entering the P.A. where border-security risks are concerned is both illegitimate and immoral. To get an idea of how ridiculous it is that a staunch ally such as Israel still has to beg for visa-waiver status, a review of the countries that are parties to the program is in order.

Here is the list, in alphabetical order, and the year that each was admitted: Andorra (1991); Australia (1996); Austria (1991); Belgium (1991); Brunei (1993); Chile (2014); Croatia (2021); Czech Republic (2008); Denmark (1991); Estonia (2008); Finland (1991); France (1989); Germany (1989); Greece (2010); Hungary (2008); Iceland (1991); Ireland (1995); Italy (1989); Japan (1988); Latvia (2008); Liechtenstein (1991); Lithuania (2008); Luxembourg (1991); Malta (2008); Monaco (1991); Netherlands (1989); New Zealand (1991); Norway (1991); Poland (2019); Portugal (1999); San Marino (1991); Singapore (1999); Slovakia (2008); Slovenia (1997); South Korea (2008); Spain (1991); Sweden (1989); Switzerland (1989); Taiwan (2012) and the United Kingdom (1988).

If what it takes to be treated similarly to the above nations is accepting accusations of discrimination and ceding crucial security measures, Israel should waive the privilege.

Ruthie Blum is an Israel-based journalist and author of “To Hell in a Handbasket: Carter, Obama, and the ‘Arab Spring.’ ” 

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