The president’s visit to the Middle East this week will focus on key strategic questions, such as Israeli-Saudi normalization, Iran’s nuclear ambitions, and how to revive the long-stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace process. . However, a lesser -known element of Washington’s alliance with Israel is certainly on U.S. President Joe Biden’s agenda: Israel’s long -standing desire to join America’s visa waiver program.
In his first year and a half in office, Biden raised the issue, and efforts to achieve Israel’s entry are gaining momentum after remaining stagnant during the Donald Trump administration. A few days before the president arrived in Israel on July 7, the two countries signed a critical data -sharing agreement. A week earlier, on June 28, U.S. Ambassador to Israel Thomas Nides had stressed the issue and appealed to Israeli leaders not to “lose momentum,” while the country is heading towards its fifth election in less than four years.
Joining the Visa Waiver Program — known by its acronym “VWP” — is likely to be transformative for the Israeli public and will also have significant benefits for American communities, including Jewish-Americans and Arab-Americans.
Although the upcoming elections in Israel may temporarily delay progress — because some U.S. requirements require Knesset action — under Biden, the VWP has moved from the backburner to the middle stage in the alliance of US-Israel. Now, Israel is closer than ever to meeting the requirements to participate in the program.
In an upcoming study for the Atlantic Council, we detailed the context, history, and current bilateral dialogue with the VWP — an exclusive group composed largely of European countries and several other countries, including Chile and Singapore.
Because the United States and Israel have a very good intimate and unique relationship, it is surprising to some that Israel has not yet been admitted. Israel is, by far, the largest recipient of U.S. foreign aid, following the signing of a $ 38 billion, ten -year Memorandum of Understanding for security assistance in 2016. The intelligence, defense, and security communities of the country maintains a very close relationship. Israel was the first country to sign an independent trade agreement with the United States. Both countries boast large, growing, and closely connected expatriate and exchange populations. Regardless of party or political lineage, the leaders of both countries mentioned the “special” status of the alliance and the interests and values of the countries.
However, one arena where US-Israel relations are lagging behind is in the seemingly mundane, but important part of travel visas, particularly considering the growing human-to-people relationship between the two societies. For decades, Americans have been able to travel freely to Israel without having to apply for a visa. But most Israelis continue to face a major hurdle by being required under U.S. immigration law to obtain a visa before traveling to the United States.
Americans entering Israel for short -term visits typically do not require prior visa planning and automatically receive a three -month entry visa upon arrival. That said, some communities face major challenges. Some Arab-Americans and Muslim-Americans have “experienced great hardship and unequal and occasionally ill-treatment at Israel’s borders and checkpoints,” as the State Department describes in its travel advisory.
Israel’s entry into the VWP will address this issue to a significant extent through the program’s Congress-mandated reciprocity rules, an important topic we will discuss in the Atlantic Council’s upcoming study.
Without a VWP, Israelis are subject to a complicated, expensive, and sometimes uncertain visa application process that applies to all but those countries in the program. Travel and visa barriers are a point of frustration for many Israelis, who seek easier access to the United States, the country where many Israelis feel most aligned.
Some factors that have hindered Israel’s eligibility for the program are its need to comply with VWP requirements for data sharing, lowering visa “denial rates”, and the requirement for equivalent treatment for to eligible U.S. citizens, regardless of background. In earlier stages of bilateral discussions, which we detailed in the study, some Israeli officials and advocates in the U.S. called for exceptions for Israel — a tactic that appears to have fallen by the wayside, while the officials from both sides are committed to “meeting the requirements.,” to mention President Biden at his meeting at the Oval Office with former Prime Minister Naftali Bennett last year.
All eyes this week may be on the big strategic issues. However, there is no doubt that the Israeli public, and some American communities, have a lot at stake when it comes to the ongoing conversation about travel.
Ruth Eglash is a longtime Israel -based journalist. He has written for a variety of publications, including the Jerusalem Post, Washington Post, and Jewish Insider. Follow him on Twitter: @reglash.
Scott Lasensky was a former senior policy advisor in Israel during the Barack Obama administration. He is co-author of The Peace Puzzle: America’s Search for Arab-Israeli Peace. Follow him on Twitter: @scottlasensky.