The statement on Tuesday by US Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas that Israel is among four countries being considered for inclusion in the US State Department’s Bureau of Consular Affairs visa-waiver program has led more than a few would-be travelers to say they will believe it when they see it.
Whether the other three – Cyprus, Bulgaria and Romania – are equally weary of having that particular privilege dangled in front of them every few years is unclear. One thing is certain, though: Israelis of all socioeconomic backgrounds are afflicted with wanderlust and take every opportunity to flit around the globe, whether or not they can afford to do so.
This tendency has always been a source of curiosity on the part of foreigners, many of whom rarely or never venture beyond their own shores. Americans are often shocked to encounter Israelis who have crossed the US, coast to coast, returning with photoshoots from every national landmark, from the Grand Canyon and Las Vegas to Disneyworld.
The desperation to fly somewhere – anywhere – has been especially noteworthy during the pandemic, when air travel is such a nuisance. Deciphering the coronavirus regulations for exiting and reentering alone would seem to be a sufficient deterrent. Yet it has not been one.
On the contrary, Israelis of all stripes are pouncing on plane tickets for low-cost stints in an Airbnb or luxurious vacationing at five-star hotels in every location imaginable.
Claustrophobia could have something to do with it. Living in a state that can be traversed by car from North to South in six hours, and east to west in less than two, might have that effect. Coupled with the closures and quarantines that came with the onset of COVID-19, the sense of being cooped up became magnified.
Despite its distance and the relatively high cost of airfare to get there, the US has always been and still is a desired destination for denizens of the Holy Land. Part of its allure, perhaps, is the difficulty that young Israelis have in obtaining permission to enter. Those granted a 10-year stamp of approval feel elated, as it means that they don’t have to go through the exhausting ahead of each visit to the “goldene medina.”
Others have no choice but to repeatedly go through the grueling process of forms and fees, as well as an interview with a consular or embassy clerk with the power and often arbitrary decision to reject the request. Currently, even this procedure is at a standstill, as the earliest appointment to be had for the “pleasure” during these coronavirus days is next July.
PRIOR TO 2018, when former US president Donald Trump recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, moved the US Embassy there from Tel Aviv and shut down the US Consulate in east Jerusalem, rumor and anecdote had it that there was an uptick in the number of refusals to Israeli visa-seekers.
One explanation for the phenomenon was the stream of Israelis flooding the American “mall market,” peddling gadgets and Dead Sea products to passersby in shopping centers. Most of these 20-somethings did not have work permits or pay taxes. Many used the gig as a starting point from which to remain in the US and live there while applying for green cards. Some went as far as to “marry” American citizens, with all that entails, such as having to pass inspection by immigration officials poring over their “wedding photos” and grilling them on their nuptial habits.
As a result of the above, Israelis requesting visas often came to their embassy interviews equipped with reams of documents, such as rental contracts or deeds to apartments and salary slips from places of employment, as proof that their stay in the US would be temporary.
The whole arduous endeavor wouldn’t be so irritating if Israelis were given the same treatment as everybody else. As it happens, however, there are 40 other countries in the world that enjoy visa-waiver status with the US. The citizens of those countries can enter America for up to 90 days without a visa, as long as they register electronically before boarding a flight.
To get an idea of how ridiculous it is that Israel has been trying unsuccessfully since 2005 to gain entry into the US visa-waiver program, one need only review the list of countries party to it and the year that they were admitted: Andorra (1991); Australia (1996); Austria (1991); Belgium (1991); Brunei (1993); Chile (2014); Croatia (2021); Czech Republic (2008); Denmark (1991); Estonia (2008); Finland (1991); France (1989); Germany (1989); Greece (2010); Hungary (2008); Iceland (1991); Ireland (1995); Italy (1989); Japan (1988); Latvia (2008); Liechtenstein (1991); Lithuania (2008); Luxembourg (1991); Malta (2008); Monaco (1991); Netherlands (1989); New Zealand (1991); Norway (1991); Poland (2019); Portugal (1999); San Marino (1991); Singapore (1999); Slovakia (2008); Slovenia (1997); South Korea (2008); Spain (1991); Sweden (1989); Switzerland (1989); Taiwan (2012) and the UK (1988).
Two congressional bills in 2013, one proposed by Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R.-Florida) and a different version by Sen. Barbara Boxer (D.-California), were introduced to rectify the situation. Though a visa waiver was only one element of the laws, it’s the one that sparked the most controversy on Capitol Hill.
The White House, US State Department and US Homeland Security Department under the administration of US president Barack Obama felt that such legislation would be unfair to Muslims. Yes, Team Obama didn’t think that it adequately tackled the problem of Israel’s “discriminatory” practices against Arab Americans en route to the Palestinian Authority.
One example cited was Israel’s preventing of certain Arab visitors from landing at Ben-Gurion Airport, compelling them instead to fly from the US to Jordan, and go the rest of the way by land. Expressing consternation over the bills, American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee National Legal and Policy Director Abed Ayoub said that they “allow[ed] for the discrimination of US citizens by another country,” calling it “reprehensible that US congressional members would allow for such action to take place.”
The same sentiment was echoed in a letter, signed by 16 members of Congress – 15 Democrats and one Republican – to then-outgoing ambassador to the US Michael Oren. In the missive, these paragons of American accused Israeli border officials of “disproportionately singling out, detaining and denying entry to Arab and Muslim Americans.”
Oren responded in a letter of his own to the angry politicians, in which he presented the facts on the ground: that a total of 142 Americans were denied entry into Israel in 2012, compared to 626,000 who were welcomed with no problem.
He pointed out that this put the Israeli refusal rate at 0.023%, while the American refusal rate for Israelis applying for US visas during the same period was 5.4%. He also stressed what should not have needed repeating – that Israel is forced to take into account the very real threat of terrorism at its borders.
Nevertheless, even subsequent visa-waiver negotiations with the openly pro-Israel Trump administration did not bear fruit. When certain Israeli officials voiced optimism on this score in 2017, for instance, a State Department spokesperson told the financial daily Globes that Israel did not “at this stage” meet the “very strict requirements” of the visa-exemption program. “Specifically,” he said, “the administration in Washington continues to be concerned about the unequal treatments given to US Muslims at entry points.”
ISRAEL’S EFFORTS didn’t stop there. Prime Minister Naftali Bennett reportedly raised the visa-waiver issue with US President Joe Biden in August during their meetings in Washington. According to a White House statement, Biden told Bennett that his administration would strengthen bilateral cooperation with Israel in multiple ways, “including by working together towards Israel’s inclusion in the visa-waiver program,” and the two leaders directed their respective teams to “enhance consultations as Israel works on addressing the program’s requirements.”
Uh-oh. This sounded eerily like a not-so-veiled discussion about possible Israeli concessions on border security.
WHICH BRINGS us to the timing of Mayorkas’s seductive allusion to a potential softening of America’s stance on whether to place Israel on the same footing as, say, Estonia and Iceland – while categorizing the Jewish state as equivalent to Cyprus, Bulgaria and Romania where entry visas are concerned.
Though there’s no hard evidence that it’s connected to Bennett’s stated intention last week, and follow-through on Wednesday, to allow the Civil Administration in Judea and Samaria to advance plans for the construction of 3,130 housing units in Area C of the West Bank, the timing is a bit suspicious. That it came on the heels, as well, of Defense Minister Benny Gantz’s designation of six “human rights” NGOs associated with the PFLP as terrorist organizations is all the more cause for pause.
If this is the Biden administration’s carrot-and-stick approach to Israeli policy, Jerusalem shouldn’t behave like a hungry bunny. Israeli tourists deserve to be handled by the US like their British, Dutch or Australian counterparts. But not at the expense of their safety and sovereignty.