In a move that may well reflect pre-election realpolitik rather than a policy turn-around, Washington delivered two small changes to the entry visas available for Israeli nationals entering the United States. Despite the triumphalist headlines from Israeli news sources, the gold standard for US visas - entrance into the US Visa Waiver Program is still a distant dream.



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Last week, Congress enabled wealthy Israelis to join the citizens of an additional 70 countries in their ability to buy themselves an E-2 "investors" visa by investing in America and hiring American workers. This came a week after another excited headline on relaxed visa conditions - that frequent travelers who already hold US entry visas would be able to use biometric fast track technology. Oh, hurrah.



As a holder of a biometric Israeli passport, forgive me for not dancing in the streets. Shorter lines for Israelis doesn''t seem to signify a policy change regarding the visa regime.


The residents of 36 states - of which 30 are European - do not require visas to enter the United States. They come, they go. They get stamped at their point of entry, and have 90 days in which they can stay in the US before their "passport stamp" expires.


Why not Israel?


It depends who you ask. Some veterans here in DC hinted that it is actually an Israeli bugaboo - an attempt to keep better track of its citizenry, or prevent everyone from jumping ship to Miami, or avoiding military service or some-such. A second line of explanation centers around Israel''s Arab population. America couldn''t restrict Visa Waivers to Israeli Jews, and thus would rather give no visa waivers than take a risk with the 1.6 million Arabs who live within the ''67 borders and have Israeli citizenship. Because they are terror threats, that line of explanation assumes.


Let''s say that we buy that. That countries with large populations of Arabs or Muslims should be excluded from the Visa Waiver Program. How would that explain why France, with 4.7 million Muslims, Germany with 4.1 million Muslims, and the United Kingdom with 2.1 million Muslims - and the Finsbury Park Mosque - are all included in the program?


Israel - like Turkey - is considered a "road map" country, a state that has ostensibly begun negotiations with the State Department to be included in the program. Traditionally, State and the Department of Homeland Security decide sporadically when to expand - or contract - the program to include or exclude new countries.


Here''s where the campaign season peeks out again: last week, a bipartisan group of legislators introduced a bill to circumvent the State/DHS process and force the US to extend the Visa Waiver Program to Israel. This isn''t the first time Congress has tried this move, but given the fact that Israel is one of the few subjects that seem to enjoy any real bi-partisan support, this time could be different.


Rep. Brad Sherman introduced the Visa Waiver for Israel Act, explaining that  “Israel is our closest friend and democratic ally in the Middle East. Adding Israel to the Visa Waiver Program will boost business, tourism, and job creation here in the U.S. and enhance cultural ties between our two nations." Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) and Rep. Ted Poe (R-Texas) were the lead co-sponsors, and were joined by 11 other legislators.


The Israeli Embassy, which according to explanation 1 would not support such a bill in order to maintain better control responded by saying that: "The passage of this legislation would further strengthen the special and deep relationship between Israel and the United States." Strangely, no mention of the bill''s deleterious impact on the state''s ability to police its citizens.


What the bill fails to take into account is possibility #3 for Israel remaining out in the visa cold - our friends with the mall carts. Anyone who has been to an American shopping mall knows who I am talking about - flocks of Israelis working illegally on tourism visas who really want you to buy Dead Sea products. The State Department is aware of this problem - so aware, in fact, that last year, the Tel Aviv Embassy produced a warning video.


Visa-waiver proponents argue that the situation will not change by much - and even if it does, these post-army service mall salespeople do not consititue a real problem for the US, as the majority of them remain in the US for a few months, or years, and then go back to Israel. 


In a Wiki-Leaked document from 2010, the US Ambassador to Israel wrote that " Tel Aviv''s interviewing officers are constantly trying to find ways to detect Israelis who intend to work; needless to say, coaching and other assistance has made it very difficult to detect these cases. An analysis of case notes pertaining to the applicants on both lists showed that most of these Israelis had given solid stories, thereby convincing consular officers to overcome 214b. The toughest aspect for 214b is not determining whether the applicant will return, but whether s/he will abide by their visa''s terms. Tel Aviv FPU is open to ideas on improving its detection of those intending to work; we are continually brainstorming solutions, but none have proven effective thus far."


In other words, the current program is more likely to keep out "innocents" who do not intend to work, rather than those who intend to and have thus been coached - an effect that I have personally observed.


But in an election year, with candidates vying to show exactly how unconditional their support for Israel is, the problem of  a few thousands of temporary illegal immigrants is exactly the kind of subtlety that gets thrown by the wayside. 


(Rebecca Anna Stoil)

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