Seth Vogelman had a vision – to bring some of his Jordanian colleagues to his daughter Kalia’s wedding. The businessman who specializes in trade with Middle Eastern countries and lives in Ma’aleh Adumim wanted three Jordanians whom he had befriended over the last decade or so to be guests at the wedding of about 500 people in Shoresh last week.
But the vision was harder to realize than he expected. One invitee didn’t get a visa, and one ultimately didn’t need a visa because he also has US citizenship. The third, a successful businessman in his 60s, found the undiplomatic treatment by the Israeli consulate in Amman to be so off-putting that he almost didn’t come.
After what he considered to be brusque behavior on the phone, the businessman came to his consulate appointment and spent six uncomfortable hours in the process of getting the visa, including long waits outside with little but “an open steel shelter” to protect the mass of people from the hot sun.
“That is what made me really feel bad, to think you have an appointment and realize that they invite everyone at once and they’re just beginning to call out names,” said the businessman, who asked not to be named because he worried that it might jeopardize future visits to Israel.
Vogelman said it was frustrating to hear what his business friends experienced.
“All sides agree that security is important and Jordan as well as Israel has suffered from terrorist attacks. We of course want our people to do what’s necessary for security, but that’s no reason for embassy people not to speak politely,” said Vogelman, who is the director of Trade at Atid-EDI, a company which specializes in market research, trade development, strategic information and feasibility studies, according to the company’s website.
Atid-EDI facilitates business connections between many Israeli and Arab companies, a quiet financial coexistence that hums below the public radar.
“My colleagues call the embassy and they just answer ‘hello.’ Never a diplomatic, ‘thank you for calling the Israeli Embassy.’ When the embassy calls to check with someone, they just say, ‘Samir?’ as if they’re calling an old friend.”
The curt communication and red tape, mixed with brusqueness, doesn’t go over well in the Arab world, he noted.
“You would think they would want to facilitate those contacts,” Vogelman says. “Instead, the way they related to the people we wanted to bring over was insulting at times. Why can’t they speak to people in a way that’s polite? If you want people on that side of the river to meet people on this side of the river, why is this happening? In a situation when we want to show coexistence and cooperation, this doesn’t help.”
The story he tells is not usual. Other Israelis with friends and business contacts in Jordan, Egypt and Turkey regularly complain that they’ve been frustrated with how Byzantine the process of obtaining visas for a visit to Israel can be, or have been embarrassed by how security officials at Israel’s borders have treated their colleagues.
Although Israeli officials have often bemoaned the disappointing levels of tourism and economic cooperation that have been generated by the 1994 peace accord with Jordan, many involved in the day-to-day attempts to increase trade ties between the two countries say the obstacles to bringing Jordanians here serve as a major disincentive.
Yuval Piurko, the former managing director of the Israel- Jordan Chamber of Commerce, says that in the five years since he has left the post, nothing appears to have changed.
“During my work in that position, the issue of getting visas for Jordanian businessman was the most challenging and sometimes depressing element of my work,” said Piurko, now a business consultant. “I was in contact with tens of Jordanian business people, who pay a personal and social price for their connections with Israel in their own community. They’re definitely a minority, and many Jordanian businessman are not willing to be known to be doing business with Israel.
“So here we are with the minority of businessman who are willing to make the significant move toward Israel, and the security authorities in Israel have not acknowledged this willingness,” he continued. “They make a lot of difficulties for anyone who wants to get a visa for Israel. They will say that there are security issues, that there are illegal Jordanian immigrants who stay in West Bank or in Arab villages in Israel, and this may be true.
“But I have witnessed so many cases of frustrated and humiliated business people. They say, ‘We risked so much and this is the response we get?’ It’s really not understandable. We tried to get a steady list of people who are allowed to come in regularly, and it wasn’t allowed.”
He added: “Some of the procedures the candidates for visas are put through are unreasonable and unnecessary.”
Despite such difficulties, tourism from Jordan seems to be increasing, a Tourism Ministry spokeswoman said. Israel had 20,717 visitors from Jordan in 2011, 13 percent more than the year before. Many of those visitors are Palestinians who live in Jordan and are visiting family in Israel and the West Bank.
Yigal Palmor, spokesman for Foreign Ministry, said he could not comment on individual cases, but was apologetic if any treatment the businessman encountered was less than diplomatic.
“The consulate has to deal with many, many visa applications, not all of them are easy cases. They need to provide a good and courteous service to all. This person is welcome in Israel and I’m sorry he feels the way he does, and I hope that the visit in Israel will compensate for that feeling,” Palmor said.
The wedding, meanwhile, was one of the most joyous the businessman ever attended, and he also had the opportunity to visit the grave of his father in Nablus.
“It was a pleasant visit, I liked it,” he said in a phone interview upon his return to Amman. “And I would add, if things are eased, I would be there five or six times a year.”