US Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides implored Knesset members to set politics aside to pass legislation that would advance Israel’s membership in the US Visa Waiver Program as the Opposition obstructed related bills, likely delaying progress until at least next year.
“I’ve been working around the clock since I arrived to help Israel meet all the requirements to join the Visa Waiver Program,” Nides tweeted. “Don’t lose momentum now.”
The ambassador emphasized that “this will help Israeli citizens travel to the US – put them first!”
Though the bills were not previously controversial, the opposition views Israel entering the Visa Waiver Program as an achievement that they want to deny Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked, who previously said that Israel would join it by early 2023.
The Likud and its allies refused to include the bills – one that would grant the US access to information from Israelis’ passports and another to allow American authorities to see the criminal records of up to 1,000 Israelis who wish to enter the US – in the package of legislation to be passed by consensus before the Knesset was dispersed overnight on Tuesday.
The opposition’s condition to support the legislation is to move up the planned election date from November 1 to October 25, which is a day before haredi yeshivas reopen following the High Holy Days and Sukkot.
Shaked called on Likud to “remove its veto on the law we need [to pass] to get a waiver from visas to the US. We are on a very accelerated path with the US government that at the start of next year will lead to Israelis not having to stand on line at the US Embassy” to apply for a visa, Shaked said. “I call on Likud to let us pass the legislation.”
Israel joining the program has been discussed for decades
The issue of Israel joining the 40 other countries in the Visa Waiver Program, which would also allow Americans to enter Israel without a visa, has been raised repeatedly for decades.
Israel made significant progress toward joining the program in the past year, starting with former ambassador to the US Gilad Erdan, whose work the new government enthusiastically adopted last year, and continuing with US President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who said the administration would push for it when Prime Minister Naftali Bennett visited Washington in September.
Shaked worked with the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) to authorize Palestinian-Americans to use Ben-Gurion Airport en route to visit 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%, four times as much.
“Israel made more progress on getting into the Visa Waiver Program in the past six or seven months than they had in the previous years that they were trying,” a senior US Embassy official said last week. “I give a lot of credit to the current government for putting their nose to the grindstone – providing data, doing site visits, working on the substantive issues. The fact that there is legislation on the agenda is a testimony to how hard the government has been working to resolve the outstanding issues.”