In another 13 months, my Israeli passport will no longer be valid. Since I am aware that there is a major problem in renewing passports, and it is very difficult to get an appointment in any of the offices of the Population Authority in the Interior Ministry anywhere in the country, I decided to try to arrange an appointment six months ahead, taking into account that it might take another two months before the passport will actually be delivered to me.
I called up the number where appointments can allegedly be made: *3450. I was on the line for 45 minutes before someone answered. The woman who answered was very polite but informed me that there were no available appointments anywhere in the country.
“Not even in another six months?” I asked. “No,” she answered, “unless someone cancels.” Then she added, “An appointment has just popped up in Haifa in September.”
“Where in Haifa?” Before the woman managed to answer she added, “The spot has been taken, but there is an opening in Netanya.” But immediately that spot was taken, as well. “Listen, this is a joke,” I mumbled, “if worse comes to worst and for some reason, I shall have to travel abroad after my passport runs out, I shall simply go to the Population Authority at Ben-Gurion Airport, two days before my flight, and get a temporary passport.”
Of course, there is a small hitch to this. First of all, the temporary passport is not biometric, secondly, it is valid for only two years and thirdly the cost (NIS 875 – the last time I checked) is around three times the cost of an ordinary, 10-year biometric passport. Why are we fined because the Interior Ministry messed up?
I have read that there are appointment slots available on the black market. For anywhere between NIS 400-2,000, networks of hackers and bots sell precious slots for the next day online. Haaretz reporter Haim Levinson has also alleged that in his own experience, with appropriate connections one can attain bureaucratic shortcuts. But I am too square for the black market and alas, as an old-age pensioner, the days in which I had connections in higher places are a thing of the past.
What is the reason for this mess?
Well, in the first place, the basic problem appears to be worldwide and has resulted from the COVID pandemic, which for over a year more or less put a halt to most international travel, which in turn resulted in people failing to renew their passports. This caused a major backlog in the issuing of new passports after the pandemic was over, which has caused major delays in the issuing of new passports.
In Israel, where the backlog is of close to one million passports, the overall problem seems to be much more acute than elsewhere in the democratic world. This is largely due to the fact that since 2017 only biometric passports are issued (except for temporary passports), and that Israel introduced an especially sophisticated biometric system.
It requires the arrival of citizens at a Population Authority office to order a new passport in order to provide fingerprints and other identity verification, and consequently postal or online procedures – that are available in other countries – are ruled out, at least for the time being.
In addition, while in most countries, measures have been taken to significantly increase manpower and reduce bureaucracy in the process of issuing new passports, in Israel, only Interior Ministry employees can deal with the actual procedure of issuing passports. Due to the fact that most of the lower positions in the ministries are poorly paid, the Interior Ministry has been having difficulty filling the required positions and is unable to outsource even parts of the procedure.
It has been suggested that the existence (for historic reasons) of several workers’ committees involved in the organization of the relevant employees in the ministry is also the cause of difficulties.
FURTHERMORE, A mechanical problem is involved. Although it has been reported that dozens of new machines have been purchased to produce the passports, there still appears to be a shortage of machines and the quantities of passports produced are said to be inadequate.
There is also very slow progress in the introduction of machines that will be able to cope with the problems raised by Israel’s sophisticated biometric standards without requiring those seeking to renew their biometric passports (rather than to issue a first-time biometric passport) to turn up in person at a Population Authority office.
As to the hackers and bots (usually referred to as “the Russian Mafia”), the Interior Ministry seems to be on top of the problem, which involves the stealing of thousands (possibly tens of thousands) of appointment slots.
On May 1, the Population Authority announced that in an effort to make progress towards solving the passport crisis, from mid-May its four largest offices in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Haifa and Beersheba would be open for a month from 7:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. five days a week and that all the manpower in these offices will be devoted to the renewal of biometric passports, without those requiring the renewal having to make an appointment.
The authority’s office in Bnei Brak, which usually deals with issuing visas to foreign workers, will also concentrate on issuing biometric passports, though only by appointment.
However, even the new director-general of the Population Authority Eyal Siso admits that while if the initiative will work smoothly several hundreds of thousands of new biometric passports might be issued, the arrival of tens of thousands of citizens every day to the offices, without an appointment, could well cause havoc, and that the ministry is coordinating the whole event with the police.
According to the new Interior Minister Moshe Arbel (Shas), although the initiative is not expected to solve the problem, it will give the ministry more time to get organized for a long-term solution, which according to Siso is expected by the first quarter of 2024.
That raises the thought that if what is required is time to work out a long-term solution, perhaps it would be simpler to temporarily prolong the validity of all existing biometric passports from 10 to 12 years, or facilitate the acquisition of temporary, non-biometric passports, for a certain period, while permanent solutions both in the field of manpower and mechanization are worked out for the smooth acquisition of 10-year biometric passports.
The expectation that citizens should roam the length and breadth of the country – even though our country is relatively small – in order to find an appointment slot somewhere in order to renew a passport is preposterous.
Incidentally, I also own a United States passport (I was born to American parents in Mandatory Palestine), which is about to run out in 11 months. The US Embassy website offers two ways by which one can renew or replace an American passport in Israel-West Bank-Gaza by means of mail or courier services, or by means of an appointment at the embassy in Jerusalem or at the branch office in Tel Aviv.
However, when one tries to make an appointment, one receives a notice that there are no appointments available for the next 360 days. According to the State Department, the process of getting a new passport is liable to take up to four months from the moment the application is received to the passport’s arrival by post.
The writer worked in the Knesset for many years as a researcher and has published extensively both journalistic and academic articles on current affairs and Israeli politics. Her most recent book, Israel’s Knesset Members – A Comparative Study of an Undefined Job, was published by Routledge, last year.