Netanyahu to advance US visa waiver after blocking it

Israel has attempted to join the 40 other countries in the Visa Waiver Program, which would also allow Americans to enter Israel without a visa, repeatedly for decades.

 BENJAMIN NETANYAHU gives a press conference as prime minister in April 2021. He’ll likely be returning to familiar turf. (photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)
BENJAMIN NETANYAHU gives a press conference as prime minister in April 2021. He’ll likely be returning to familiar turf.
(photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)

Prime Minister-designate Benjamin Netanyahu plans to prioritize moves allowing Israel to enter the US Visa Waiver Program, his spokesman said on Thursday.

The Netanyahu-led opposition obstructed bills that would advance Israel’s membership in the program earlier this year. The legislation was generally not controversial, but the opposition conditioned support on moving up the date of the recent election by a week, which the coalition declined to do.

But Netanyahu assured US Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides in a meeting this week that he would move forward with the program, as first reported on Channel 12.

“He intends to advance it very soon,” Netanyahu’s spokesman said.

 Ambassador Tom Nides in his office at the US Embassy in Jerusalem.  (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST) Ambassador Tom Nides in his office at the US Embassy in Jerusalem. (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)

Israel's attempts to join the US Visa Waiver Program

Israel has attempted to join the 40 other countries in the Visa Waiver Program, which would also allow Americans to enter Israel without a visa, repeatedly for decades.

Former ambassador to the US Gilad Erdan began working on the matter last summer, and US President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the administration would push for it when Prime Minister Naftali Bennett visited Washington in September 2021.

Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked worked with the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) to authorize Palestinian-Americans to use Ben-Gurion Airport en route to visiting the West Bank, to fit the American requirement of reciprocity.

The ministry also launched a campaign to lower the rate of visa refusal for Israelis from about 6% to below 3%, which was one of the obstacles to Israel joining the 40 other countries in the program. Most of the refusals were due to invalid passport photos or registration errors.

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%.

Progressive Democrats in Congress sought to keep Israel out of the Visa Waiver Program, with Rep. Rashida Tlaib, who is of Palestinian origin and has family in the West Bank, leading the call.

Earlier this month, 20 House Democrats signed a letter spearheaded by Tlaib and Rep. Don Beyer arguing Israel should be disqualified because of "ethnic-based discrimination" and racial profiling.

The US “continues to work with Israel towards fulfilling all Visa Waiver Program requirements, such as extending reciprocal privileges to all US citizens and nationals, including Palestinian-Americans,” State Department Principal Deputy Spokesman Vedant Patel said in October.