The Trump administration last week poured cold water on the optimism expressed by Minister of Justice Ayelet Shaked concerning prospects of Israel and the US signing an agreement exempting Israeli citizens from the requirement for an entry visa into the US in the near future.
Judging by a response by the US State Department to a "Globes" query, it will not happen so fast. Israeli sources also said that work on the agreement with the US was nowhere near completion.
On Monday, "Globes" quoted Shaked as posting on her Twitter page, "Since I took up my post, we have been working with the Americans on joining the select group of countries whose citizens are exempt from obtaining an entry visa for the US," adding, "We have found the balance between protecting the privacy of Israeli citizens and US requirements."
In that story, however, "Globes" correspondent Chen Ma'anit wrote, "Closer examination of what Shaked had to say indicates that the day when Israelis can enter the US freely without a visa may still be some way off."
In response to questions by "Globes," a State Department spokesperson said, "We understand the interest shown by the Israeli government in the visa exemption program. The waiver program is a bilateral program run by the Department of Homeland Security with advice from the State Department. The visa waiver program poses very strict requirements, including the demand that the rate of visa refusals among people in the country seeking to join the program be less than 3% of the number of visa applicants. Other requirements obligate the country seeking to implement certain arrangements for information exchanges.
"Israel does not meet all the requirements at this stage, but we are working with the Israeli government on measures that Israel can take with the potential for enabling Israel to join the program. Meanwhile, we are encouraging Israeli citizens to visit the website of the US embassy in Tel Aviv in order to learn about the procedures for requesting a visa."
The spokesperson mentioned no time frame for concluding the negotiations between Israel and the US on the visa waiver.
According to the story published on Monday in "Globes," Shaked is planning to visit Washington in two weeks, at which time she hopes to sign an "agreement in principle" for Israel's accession to the visa waiver program. It is not clear, however, when the agreement, assuming that it is signed, will be implemented.
The State Department did not mention Shaked's planned visit or the possibility of any agreement whatsoever being signed.
The people actually conducting the visa waiver negotiations between the two countries do not wish to comment about their work, but a source involved in it told "Globes," "As is known, in order for Israel to be accepted to the visa waiver program, it must meet the requirements of US law. This requires complying with several standards, including the signing of bilateral agreements. At the instruction of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, regular contacts are taking place between parties in the Ministries of Foreign Affairs and Justice, Israel Police, and the Population and Immigration Authority and the relevant parties on the US side.
"In view of the importance of the matter, Shaked, Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Tzipi Hovotely, and the legal advisor of Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit are personally involved in the contacts taking place. Thanks to the work carried out in recent years, Israel has made significant progress towards meeting the US parameters, but a great deal of work is left to be done before the processes are completed."
The State Department spokesperson emphasized that one of the bones of contention in the negotiations is treatment of US citizens of Arab origin at Israel's entry ports.
"In general, the US administration requires that every US citizen receive the same treatment upon arrival in foreign countries, and benefit from unrestricted freedom of movement, regardless of their ethnic affiliation and country of origin," she said.
"Specifically, the administration in Washington continues to be concerned about the unequal treatments given to US Muslims at entry points and checkpoints (at roadblocks in the West Bank, R.D.). We regularly raise the issue of equal treatment of all US citizens at entry points to Israel with the authorities in Israel."
Israel's efforts to join the visa waiver program began in 2005, and the complaints about unfair treatment of US citizens of Arab origin have been an insuperable obstacle ever since. In 2013, two bills were proposed in the Senate and House of Representatives with the same name: the US-Israel Strategic Partnership Act of 2013."
The following clauses appeared in both bills: "Congress declares that Israel is a major strategic partner of the US," "Extension of War Reserves Stockpile Authority," "Expedited Licensing Procedures" (for exporting military goods sold to it subject to the regulatory restrictions on their use), "US-Israel Cooperation on Cyber-Security," and "It shall be the policy of the United States to include Israel in the list of countries that participate in the visa waiver program."
This last clause was the only obstacle preventing the bill's passage, and was eventually removed.
The dispute centered around the following section: "The State of Israel shall be designated as a program country on the date on which the Secretary of Homeland Security, after consultation with the Secretary of State, certifies that the government of Israel (1) has complied with all of the requirements set forth in subparagraphs (B) through (F); and (2) has made every reasonable effort, without jeopardizing the security of the state of Israel, to ensure that reciprocal travel privileges are extended to all United States citizens."
This wording, especially the phrase "without jeopardizing the security of the state of Israel," were designed to enable Israel to prevent the entry of US citizens that Israel believes are liable to harm its security. Many Congressmen, including supporters of Israel, could not accept this phrase saying that it was irregular, and would give Israel a green light to discriminate against US citizens of Palestinian origin.
"It will be amazing if a green light is given to a specific country to violate the civil rights of US citizens traveling abroad," a Congressional assistant told the Jewish Telegraph Agency (JTA) at the time.
On April 14, 2013, "Globes" reported, "Washington sources believe that the Israel Security Agency is opposing giving an automatic right of entry to Israel to US citizens, due to concern that Palestinians with US passports will misuse this right."
No solution to this problem has emerged in the four and a half subsequent years. Shaked may be bringing a formula to solve the problem on her visit.