newsU.S.-Israel Relations

Israel enters US Visa Waiver Program

"This decision shows the strong ties between the two countries,” said acting U.S. Ambassador to Jerusalem Stephanie Hallett.

Ben-Gurion Airport, Dec. 22, 2021. Credit: Flash90.
Ben-Gurion Airport, Dec. 22, 2021. Credit: Flash90.

Israel on Wednesday joined the U.S. Visa Waiver Program, which will allow Israeli citizens to travel to America for 90 days without a visa.

“This decision shows the strong ties between the two countries,” said acting U.S. Ambassador to Israel Stephanie Hallett in a briefing to journalists.

Israelis will still need a visa to travel to the United States until the bureaucratic process is finalized, which is expected to be sometime before Nov. 30.

Only those Israelis with a biometric passport valid for a decade will be eligible to benefit from the waivers.

According to the envoy, the new procedure will require Israelis to fill out a digital form on the ESTA (Electronic System for Travel Authorization) site, which checks the eligibility of travelers in visa-waiver countries to enter the United States. Answers will be received within 72 hours.

Once granted, eligibility will last for two years. Israelis who travel to the United States for longer periods, such as for studies or work, will still need regular visas.

Also, dual Israeli-American citizens will not be able to enter the United States using their Israeli passports but instead must continue to enter and leave the country with valid American passports.

“We have been working on this for years, almost a decade, especially over the past year during which we passed extensive Knesset legislation that made possible the legal basis for this action,” said Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday.

“This decision is additional testimony to the strong ties between Israel and the U.S. I would like to express our appreciation to U.S. President Joe Biden for his support of the initiative, which will further strengthen ties between the two peoples,” he continued.

“Warm wishes to all the citizens of Israel and have a pleasant flight,” Netanyahu said.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken recently penned a letter to Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas recommending that Israel be admitted to the program.

The letter was “largely a technical procedure” but required before Mayorkas makes the final decision, Axios reported. The deadline for the U.S. decision was Sept. 30, after which Israel would have had to apply again.

The Visa Waiver Program is administered by the Department of Homeland Security in consultation with the State Department.

Constant review

Hallet said, “The [U.S.] administration emphasized that all member states of the exemption program are subject to constant review to make sure they meet the conditions, and this will also be the case with Israel. If there is a violation of the conditions, the administration may remove Israel from the exemption program.”

During the State Department’s press briefing on Tuesday, a reporter asked how Washington is evaluating reports about travel into Israel from Palestinian-Americans, which has been a sticking point in the past for Israeli entry into the program.

“Along with the Department of Homeland Security, we have had a monitoring mechanism in place since two months ago, when we launched this program to monitor conditions, to ensure that Palestinian Americans are able to travel freely, to make sure that they are not discriminated against,” said Matthew Miller, the department’s spokesman.

“That includes talking to people who have traveled in and out of Israel, and understanding their experience. And we take all that data and look at it, and it’s part of the determination by the secretary and ultimately the secretary of the Department of Homeland Security,” Miller continued. “We look at all that data in making a determination whether Israel is eligible for entry into the program.”

For average Israelis who want to visit the United States, admittance to the program will put an end to arduous and expensive visa applications.

It will have other significant benefits, relating to security. “Flights will be much safer,” Gil Bringer, the senior official at Israel’s Population and Immigration Authority tasked with finalizing Israel’s admission to the program, told Israel Hayom in August.

“For the first time ever, Israel will be able to cross-check incoming passengers with the databases found in Interpol, and not just in cases where there is a stolen passport; it would also apply to people that have a criminal history. We will be able to deny them boarding at their point of origin through the API [Advance Passenger Information] system,” he said.

Israel has sought acceptance into the Visa Waiver Program for decades. One of the issues holding up its admittance has been the U.S. requirement that Israeli authorities treat all American citizens equally, including Palestinian Arabs who hold American citizenship.

A State Department and Homeland Security Department delegation observed operations during the trial, with inspections at Ben-Gurion Airport and crossings into Judea and Samaria.

Other requirements Israel met included allowing the Israel Police to share biometric data with U.S. law enforcement agencies, a change requiring Knesset legislation. Israel also passed a significant hurdle when the number of Israelis refused visas to enter the United States for the first time dropped below a 3% threshold—a benchmark set by the State Department.

“This is good news for all Israeli citizens! As we already announced at the beginning of the year, within a few weeks Israelis will be able to visit the United States without having to wait a long time for a visa from the American embassy,” said Foreign Minister Eli Cohen on Monday night.

Cohen said Israel’s participation in the program would contribute to the country’s economy and tourism and “reduce the bureaucracy and cost for entering the United States.”

Amichai Stein is the diplomatic correspondent for Kan 11, IPBC.

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