US working towards visa waiver for Israelis, Mayorkas says

The White House said in August after a meeting between President Biden and Israeli PM Bennett that Biden emphasized "his administration would strengthen bilateral cooperation with Israel."

 Israeli ambassador to the US Gilad Erdan and Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas meet. (photo credit: ISRAELI DELEGATION TO THE UN)
Israeli ambassador to the US Gilad Erdan and Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas meet.
(photo credit: ISRAELI DELEGATION TO THE UN)

The US is considering adding Israel to its visa waiver program, allowing its citizens to visit America for 90 days without a visa, US Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said on Tuesday.

“We have four candidates in the pipeline: Israel, Cyprus, Bulgaria and Romania,” Mayorkas said on Tuesday at a travel industry event. “We’re very, very focused on the program,” he added, saying it provides significant economic and security benefits.

Ambassador to the US Gilad Erdan said, “Israel is continuing in full force to ensure that Israeli citizens will be able to enter the US freely without a visa, as they should be able to do with our closest ally.

“The clear statement by Mayorkas, who is responsible for this matter and with whom I met several times to discuss it, is a significant advance towards attaining the goal,” Erdan added.

Adding Israel to the visa waiver program was one of Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s goals for his visit to the White House in August, with his staff saying the matter had gotten stuck in lower-level talks and needed a push from above.

PRIME MINISTER Naftali Bennett holds a mask during a meeting with US President Joe Biden at the White House last month.REUTERS/JONATHAN ERNSTPRIME MINISTER Naftali Bennett holds a mask during a meeting with US President Joe Biden at the White House last month.REUTERS/JONATHAN ERNST

US President Joe Biden emphasized that “his administration would strengthen bilateral cooperation with Israel in ways that would benefit both US citizens and Israeli citizens, including by working together towards Israel’s inclusion in the Visa Waiver Program.”

There are currently 40 countries in the US Visa Waiver Program.

The issue of waiving visas for Israelis to visit the US and vice versa has been raised repeatedly over decades. The US never agreed to advance it, partly because Israel rejects many Palestinian-Americans who want to enter the country and partly because the American refusal rate for Israelis applying for a visa is higher than the threshold for a visa waiver.

However, the high refusal rates are due to cultural differences with the US, a senior Israeli diplomatic source explained in August. Many of the Israeli visa requests that are refused come from people in their early 20s who are unemployed and whom the US views as being more likely to overstay their visas and try to work illegally. But in Israel, these are often people who have just finished their IDF service and are looking to travel for a few months.

In fact, Israelis have one of the lowest visa-overstay rates in the world, at 0.5%, when the maximum for a visa-waiver agreement is 2%.

Regarding the blocking of Palestinian-Americans from entering Israel, the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) can find a way to resolve that issue, if it is standing in the way of a visa-waiver agreement, the source said.

Reuters contributed to this report.