The departure hall at Ben-Gurion Airport, April 4, 2023. Photo by Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90.
The departure hall at Ben-Gurion Airport, April 4, 2023. Photo by Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90.
featureU.S.-Israel Relations

‘This is the real thing’: US Visa Waiver Program’s point man speaks

Gil Bringer is the Israeli official who has been coordinating the delicate and complicated talks to have Israel admitted to the lucrative program. He now believes that it is within reach and will benefit both sides.

Gil Bringer, the senior official at Israel’s Population and Immigration Authority tasked with finalizing Israel’s admission to the U.S. Visa Waiver Program, had yet to sit when I asked him, “Can I freeze my application to get a visa because we will soon get an automatic waiver?”

In response to my question, which at least 10 people had asked me to ask him over the past several months, Bringer said what I wanted to hear: “My assessment is yes … I am very optimistic and this optimism was essential from day one. I’m not bluffing. This is the real thing.”

Bringer was tapped to lead this effort some two years ago by then-Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked, and if all goes well, the cumulative effort of himself and many others is going to culminate in the long-sought admittance to the program, after many years of unsuccessful attempts.

“This project began actually on a pessimistic note. When I tell people that this time [it’s] going to work, they put their hands on my shoulder, stare at me with a face full of pity, and tell me, ‘Good luck with that.’ The main thing that I had to do was to give people the feeling that this time, it was actually going to happen.

“I had to fake a sense of optimism in the beginning so that people would come on board. When all is said and done, this is not a one-man project; if the government ministers, the Population and Immigration Authority, the police, the Israel Airports Authority, the cyber agencies, and the [Israel Defense Forces] did not believe there was reason for optimism, this would have not happened.”

Bringer’s comments come as the project nears completion, with the relevant laws already having been passed, the joint databases set up and even the pilot program to let Palestinian Americans into Israel freely already underway.

Q: While it is clear why Israelis would benefit from the waiver—they would save money and the hassle of applying for the visa—what’s in it for the United States? Why is Israel going to become the 41st nation to be admitted? 

A: They see things differently than we do. For the U.S., this is a security collaboration agreement. As for […] the average Israeli who tells himself, “I can’t take it anymore,” he would now no longer have the headache of having to wait a long period until he gets an appointment and won’t have to pay the $150 per applicant. He would be able to buy a ticket to the U.S. on a day’s notice and pay $20 for an automatic entry permit.

But as far as the two countries are concerned, the benefits go much further than that. Fighting crime and terrorism, countering human trafficking and increasing airline safety—this will all be possible thanks to the new systems set up for this project, and because the U.S. doesn’t let new countries join the program without meeting the very high security and technological threshold.

Flights will be safer

To lay the groundwork for Israel’s admittance, significant steps have been taken at Washington’s request in terms of flight security and border control, and this will also serve Israel’s security interests, according to Bringer.

“Flights will be much safer,” he said. “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.

“Another system is the PNR [Passenger Name Record], which belongs to customs, where a whole host of information will appear on every passenger, from how they paid [to] where they are seated on the aircraft. There is also an agreement that we signed on sharing criminal data with the U.S.: Israel will be able to make up to 2,000 queries to have certain fingerprints cross-checked with the U.S. fingerprint database.”

Q: When is all this going to start? Can you give an official date when Israel will finally join?

A: I believe that in the middle of September Israel will become an official candidate country, and then two weeks later it will need to get an official U.S. stamp of approval to become a new member. [U.S.] Secretary of State Antony Blinken needs to sign a document saying we are applicants, and then-Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas will have to sign a document that allows us to join. Then we will enter a new technical phase, which U.S. officials say will take somewhere between four to six weeks, during which they test the compatibility of their systems.

Concerns and solutions

“Once all the checkups are over and the documents signed, every Israeli citizen will be able to fill out an Electronic System for Travel Authorization Form, and then within 72 hours would get an entry permit valid for two years,” said Bringer. “Visits to the United States won’t have to be planned a year in advance. This is very good news. We should recall that Israel has been trying to enter the program for more than 15 years, but this time it is actually within reach,” he added.

Q: This is where the Jewish part of me asks, could something go wrong because of the political tension between the White House and the Israeli government?

A: I have not felt that. I have run the project from day one and know it on every level. Never have the Americans raised issues that were not purely professional. I can say that on a personal level, I had concerns that something political [would] come up and cast a shadow, but this never happened. It is happening in a completely divorced way from any other issue.

Final preparations

The final preparatory phase in Israel began in July: The pilot program that allows Palestinian Americans to enter freely (as tourists, for 90 days) was launched, and this was extended to Gazan Americans just over the past several days.

It appears that for Israel this is the most concerning issue security-wise, but the United States has made it clear that it views this as a critical component, said Bringer.

“In recent days there have been claims in the media that there are some issues regarding the Palestinian Americans and that the [Israeli] security forces have voiced objections,” he said. “But let me make things clear: This condition was set by the U.S. as a deal breaker from day one; we worked on this for a long time because it is one of the most complicated conditions, and some three weeks ago Israel began implementing it. This did not come as a surprise to anyone.

“Unlike what has been reported in Haaretz, which claimed that there was opposition in the IDF and the [Israel Security Agency], I’m willing to say things clearly: There was no opposition, and definitely not to this specific step. As for the details, it took a while until we finalized a formula that everyone could live with. It was clear to the civilian decision-makers that what could not fly with security officials could not be implemented.”

Q: But how do you make sure that those who enter Israel freely won’t threaten our security? 

A: The reality is that even without the waiver program, some 20,000 Gazans enter Israel every day. After the program is in place, another 130 would become eligible. So wouldn’t the [ISA], which knows how to handle the current reality of 20,000 people entering daily, know how to adapt to a situation that would mathematically imply that only half a person on average per day gets added to the tally? The difference is not a dramatic one.

Moreover, we are introducing new technological systems that would handle the new security challenge. Not all those systems were born just for this deal, but many of them had their development accelerated in order to meet the deal’s criteria. In many ways, this upgrades Israel’s technological and security prowess and moves it to the 21st century.

Committed to the cause

This week, a delegation from the Department of Homeland Security and the U.S. State Department visited Israel. This was the fifth such delegation to arrive in Israel over the past two years to gauge Israel’s progress towards acceptance into the program, but the fine details are being hammered out between Bringer and his U.S. counterpart, who is in Israel. He said that he speaks with her “10 times a day, including after I leave this interview.”

Bringer may be kidding, but it appears that the U.S. official’s constant guidance is what made the breakthrough possible.

“We troubleshoot things all the time, so there has to be someone who is fully committed to this. This is what Mayorkas told Shaked when they met two years ago. She asked him, ‘What sets Israel apart from other countries in the program’? He answered, ‘They had a point person for the project,'” he said.

“There is a lot of goodwill shown by a lot of government ministries. For 15 years, everybody wanted to get this done, but it was never run from the top down. This time around I was empowered by then-Population and Immigration Authority Director General Tomer Moskowitz to move forward on this with a free hand, as well as by the current one, Eyal Sisso, and by Shaked and her successors. I have been working on this for two years from dusk to dawn daily,” he added.

Q: Can they kick us out of the program after we get in? 

A: Of course they can. If we do not continue to meet the criteria … of course, this could stop. Even now, during the pilot phase, if we stop admitting Palestinian Americans and act inappropriately, they can say, “That’s it.” Under the agreements, every country can stop the arrangements after giving a 30-day notice.

Judicial reform

I couldn’t end the interview without asking him what he thought about the ongoing political drama in Israel. But he elegantly ducked the question. “I have [heard] a lot of criticism when state employees expressed their views on controversial matters, so I am not going to make my views clear on legislation. I believe that if you are a public sector employee, you are not supposed to get into these things,” he said.

Originally published by Israel Hayom.

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