Political turmoil holds up US visa waiver program

Even something that would put a smile on the face of millions of Israelis is not a given if it can be used for political capital.

 Israeli entry visa (photo credit: FLICKR)
Israeli entry visa
(photo credit: FLICKR)

A particularly noxious strain of politics has infected the Israeli body politic over the last year.

It began just weeks after the Bennett government was sworn in, when the Likud – because it sought to embarrass the government – refused to vote to extend a law that it wholeheartedly believed in: the Family Reunification Law preventing Palestinians who marry Israeli Arabs from acquiring Israeli citizenship.

This strain metastasized in the spring when the opposition threatened to block another law they believed in 100% – providing scholarships for deactivated IDF soldiers.

Though that law was finally passed, it did not happen before Likud MK Miri Regev infamously said that in bringing down the government, nothing else matters – not soldiers, nor rape victims nor battered women. 

And this pernicious strain peaked, or so it was assumed, when the Likud refused to vote to extend an emergency regulation that would apply most of Israeli civil and criminal law to Israelis living beyond the Green Line.

But this strain of politics – voting against what you believe in and against something that benefits your constituents simply because the other side proposed it – did not die with the announcement last week that the country was on its way to new elections. 

No, this strain of politics is still alive, and the reason why several bills that most Israelis would like to see passed were still in doubt on Wednesday, hostage to narrow political consideration. One bill would mandate the building of a subway system in the Dan region, and two others would pave the way for Israelis to enter the United States without a visa. 

The Metro Bill was being used by the Likud in an effort to get its preferred date for the next election (October 25 rather than the November 1 date favored by the coalition).

US visa waiver program

And holding up passage of legislation needed to ensure that Israel is eligible to join the US Visa Waiver Program was being done partly for the same reason, and partly because the Likud did not want to give Yamina Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked credit for accomplishing a decades-long Israeli desire – visa-free travel to the US.

Passing legislation that would give the US limited access to criminal records of Israeli citizens and access to information on incoming travelers would pave the way for Israel to finally join the US Visa Waiver Program, meaning no more long lines at the US Embassy or consulate, no more interviews with brusque consulate officials, no more payment of visa application fees.

If you want to take the kids to Disney World, hike in the Great Smoky Mountains or gamble in Las Vegas, just book a ticket and fly. Finally making that happen should be a no-brainer. 

But in this country’s toxic political atmosphere, it is not. Even something that would put a smile on the face of millions of Israelis is not a given if it can be used for political capital.

For shame.

US Ambassador Tom Nides

The absurdity in something that so many people have anticipated for so long would now be put off for another year because of petty politics led US Ambassador Tom Nides to give the country his two cents worth.

“I’ve been working around the clock since I arrived to help Israel meet all the requirements to join the #VisaWaiverProgram. Don’t lose momentum now. This will help Israeli citizens travel to the US – put them first!” he tweeted. 

There are two problems with that tweet: One is on Israel, and the other is on Nides. 

As far as Israel is concerned, it is downright embarrassing that Washington’s ambassador needs to implore Israeli legislators to put “Israeli citizens first.” Shouldn’t they get that on their own? 

On the other hand, even if Nides is right – and he is right – he should stay out of domestic Israeli politics, and this has now morphed into a domestic Israeli political issue. Nides’s intervention is even more problematic considering his public articulation these last several months of his strong support for the present government. 

The message contained in Nides’ tweet was correct. He just should not have been the one to relay it.