WASHINGTON – The process granting a visa exemption for Israeli travelers to the US will not be finished before 2023, Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked said after a meeting with US Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas.
“I had an excellent meeting with Secretary Mayorkas,” she said. “There is a mutual desire for this to succeed.”
The two decided to establish governmental teams to tackle the remaining challenges. The US team will visit Israel in January, and Shaked and Mayorkas will follow up once a month.
“We agreed that a team of US officials will arrive in Israel in January to discuss additional details that need to be worked out,” said Shaked. “We have two primary tasks: the first is to establish a system that would allow the US immigration officers to check if a certain person who seeks entry has a criminal record – the US could inquire about some 1,000 Israelis a year. It would require us to make some adjustments, such as a legislative change to allow the US to access our criminal records system.”
The second task, she said, is to lower Israel’s refusal rates to 3% by September 2022. “There are several things that can be done to meet this threshold,” said Shaked. “For example, we asked Mayorkas’ team that if a person opens a visa application but ends up not submitting it, it would not count as a refusal. Today, such cases count as if a person who did not complete the form was rejected.
“Another cause for refusal is the high volume of applicants in their early 20s. [Former ambassador to Washington] Gilad Erdan raised this issue in his meetings at the DHS, and explained that in Israel, many people in their 20s go on a long trip after army service.
“We are also working with the Shin Bet to find a solution that would be agreed on by both sides to the screening at Ben-Gurion Airport,” she added. “I believe that the process can be completed by early 2023.”
Shaked noted that she and Mayorkas worked together in 2015 to try to solve the issue, when he was deputy secretary of homeland security and she was minister of justice.
“He truly wants to find solutions that would make it happen,” she said. “I feel that the goal is truly achievable, and that it’s an opportunity that won’t present itself again, as the entire administration from DHS to the State Department is committed to the inclusion of Israel in the Visa Waiver program.”
Shaked said that the two agreed to speak over Zoom once a month, and that Mayorkas will visit Israel.
Israel’s new ambassador to Washington, Mike Herzog, attended the meeting as well.
Mayorkas said last month that the US is considering adding Israel to its Visa Waiver program, allowing its citizens to visit America for 90 days without a visa.
“We have four candidates in the pipeline: Israel, Cyprus, Bulgaria and Romania,” Mayorkas said at a travel industry event. “We’re very, very focused on the program,” noting that it provides significant economic and security benefits.
While in Washington, Shaked also met with the incoming US Ambassador Thomas Nides, who is expected to arrive in Israel next week.
“I left with the impression that he is committed to the success of our mutual efforts,” said Shaked. “Nides is a great nomination. He is experienced and savvy. He is the right man in the right place.”