US adding Israel to the Visa Waiver Program a welcomed announcement - editorial

Adding Israel to the VWP would enable all Israeli citizens to visit the US for up to 90 days for tourism or business.

An El Al Israel Airlines Boeing 737-900ER airplane takes off from the Adolfo Suarez Madrid-Barajas airport as seen from Paracuellos del Jarama, outside Madrid, Spain, August 8, 2018 (photo credit: REUTERS/PAUL HANNA)
An El Al Israel Airlines Boeing 737-900ER airplane takes off from the Adolfo Suarez Madrid-Barajas airport as seen from Paracuellos del Jarama, outside Madrid, Spain, August 8, 2018
(photo credit: REUTERS/PAUL HANNA)

For the first time, a top US official confirmed on Tuesday that Washington is favorably considering including Israel in its Visa Waiver Program (VWP). It was a welcome announcement from Israel’s major ally after years of lobbying.

“We have four candidates in the pipeline: Israel, Cyprus, Bulgaria and Romania,” US Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas said at a travel industry event reported by Reuters. “We’re very, very focused on the program,” he added, saying it provides significant economic and security benefits.

As countless Israelis can testify, the visa application process is time-consuming and costly, and the bureaucracy has been especially challenging during the COVID-19 pandemic – even for those Israelis who need to travel urgently to the United States.

Adding Israel to the VWP would enable all Israeli citizens to visit the US for up to 90 days for tourism or business.

According to the Department of Homeland Security, the program “utilizes a risk-based, multilayered approach to detect and prevent terrorists, serious criminals, and other mala fide actors from traveling to the United States.”

 Israeli ambassador to the US Gilad Erdan and Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas meet. (credit: ISRAELI DELEGATION TO THE UN) Israeli ambassador to the US Gilad Erdan and Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas meet. (credit: ISRAELI DELEGATION TO THE UN)

Croatia became the 40th country to join the program in September. Quoted by Reuters, US Travel Association Chief Executive Roger Dow said the recent addition of Croatia was a $100 million boost to the US economy. “Each time you add one of these countries, the travel just booms,” Dow said.

Ambassador Gilad Erdan, who lobbied for the move and met Mayorkas in August, welcomed his statement.

“We’re continuing to work at full force so that Israeli citizens can enter the United States freely without the need for a visa, as is fitting for our closest ally,” Erdan said. “The clear statement from Secretary of Homeland Security Mayorkas is a very significant advancement toward achieving that goal.”

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett raised the issue when he met US President Joe Biden at the White House in August.  Biden himself mentioned the issue, saying: “We’re also going to direct our teams to work toward Israel fulfilling the requirements of the Visa Waiver Program and get that done.”

To participate in the program, a country must meet a range of requirements related to counterterrorism, law enforcement, immigration enforcement, document security and border management. “These requirements include having a rate of non-immigrant visa refusals below 3%, issuing secure travel documents, and working closely with US law enforcement and counterterrorism authorities,” the Department of Homeland Security said.

James J. Zogby, president of the Washington-based Arab American Institute, wrote in The Jordan Times that one of the provisions is a commitment to reciprocity, which for Israel means guaranteeing that all American citizens are treated equally at entry.

Back in 2014, in explaining its reasons for denying Israel entry into the VWP, Zogby recalled, the State Department spokeswoman noted that “the Department of Homeland Security and State remain concerned with the unequal treatment Palestinian Americans and other Americans of Middle Eastern origin experience at Israel’s border and checkpoints, and reciprocity is the most basic condition of the VWP.”

“We will continue to demand that as American citizens we have the right to equal protection under the law, at home and abroad,” Zogby wrote.

There is no reason that Israel should not meet these requirements – including the demand for reciprocity and respecting the rights of all US citizens, including Arab Americans.

As a democracy that upholds the principle of freedom of movement, it is in Israel’s own interest to ensure that both Arab Israelis and Arab Americans are treated equally. Adding Israel would also illustrate the strong bond between the countries. Both are democracies founded on similar values. It would make sense for peoples that are so close to one another to be able to travel freely between their respective countries.

We urge the US to expedite the process of accepting Israel into its Visa Waiver Program for the benefit of both countries.