Israelis may no longer have to apply for visas to visit the US under bills before both houses of Congress. If the proposed legislation passes, it will clear the way for Israel to participate in the visa waiver program, which currently allows nationals from countries such as Britain, France and Australia to come to the US without having to interview at American consulates and pay for entrance permits. Each chamber has proposed different versions that would have to be reconciled before being sent to the White House for signing into law. While each bill authorizes the government to expand the visa waiver program to include Israel, the decision to do so would be left to the discretion of the Department of Homeland Security. In the Senate version, already approved as part of September 11 legislation aimed at bolstering America's ability to fight terrorism, countries that cooperate with the US in the war on terror and whose nationals don't present a security threat would be eligible to join the expanded visa program. In addition, the current visa refusal rate ceiling would be lifted to 10 percent. Currently, only those countries whose citizens' requests for America visas from US consulates are refused less than 3% of the time - indicating that the vast majority of the country's visitors are considered legitimate tourists with no intention to overstay visas or violate US law - are allowed to be included in the visa waiver program. Israel's visa refusal rate in 2006 - when more than 100,000 Israelis visited America -was 4.2%, according to figures provided by the office of Rep. Robert Wexler (D-Florida), who sponsored the House legislation. Wexler's version is less restrictive than the Senate's, with no cap on the refusal rate, but includes caveats such as "the country has made significant progress in reducing its non-immigrant visa refusal rate in the previous two years." The Senate version also requires that within the year, the Homeland Security Department set up a mechanism monitoring whether international visitors not only enter but leave the country as required. Until that mechanism is in place, the visa waiver program wouldn't be expanded. The House bill, however, is only a draft and still needs House approval. It's not a part of the House September 11 legislation, which has already been voted on as a separate bill. In announcing his initiative last week, Wexler said he was "hopeful this legislation will enable key American allies - including Israel, South Korea, Greece and the 10 new European Union countries - to participate in the Visa Waiver Program." He added, "This expansion will only add to the program's positive impact on US diplomatic relations with many of our allies who have stood shoulder to shoulder with America following the tragedy of 9/11." Many individual Israelis have in the past expressed frustration with the US visa policy, which involves in-person interviews, occasional delays and, at times, rejections. That has offended some Israelis who view themselves as being part of the "special relationship" between the United States and Israel. While Wexler stressed he hoped Israelis would be able to take advantage of the visa waiver program, a staffer on the Senate Homeland Security Committee said the Senate drafters had been more focused on EU visitors. They backed the initiative based on an interest in appealing to their domestic constituencies who have relatives in new EU countries that are not part of the visa program, he said. But, he added, "Israel definitely is a very close ally in the war on terror. It's hard to imagine why Israel wouldn't qualify." The only obstacle that sometimes seems to threaten the possibility of Israel getting visa-free status, he said, is security concerns connected to Israeli Arabs. The staffer said it was the Bush administration that asked Congress to authorize the Department of Homeland Security to expand the visa waiver program, something that will help the legislation overcomes its last hurdles.

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