The Israeli visa question

An Israeli passport. (Wikimedia Commons)

An Israeli passport.
(Wikimedia Commons)

Most Americans who go to Israel can do so without a visa. It’s not the same for Israelis who want to visit the U.S., who must first have a 90-day visa approved in a meeting with a U.S. consular official in Israel. That certainly creates an uneven relationship. But for the vast majority of Israeli applicants, the visa approval process is not an onerous one. For the minority of young Israelis who are denied entry, however, the process by which America awards coveted visas can seem pretty random.

Israel’s congressional supporters, along with AIPAC, have been pushing for the Jewish state to be included in the U.S. Visa Waiver Program. If included, Israel would join a club of 38 countries whose nationals do not need a visa before entering the United States. In order to qualify for the program, however, a country must have no more than a 3 percent historical visa rejection rate. According to the U.S. State Department, Israel’s refusal rate in 2013 was 9.7 percent. And a bill that would waive the 3 percent threshold is stuck in the Senate.

There are conflicting explanations for the high Israeli visa rejection rates. Some point to many young Israelis who ignore the terms of their visitor’s visa and work at mall kiosks that sell trinkets and Dead Sea products, real and fake. Those Israelis break U.S. law and add to the growing number of undocumented workers in the United States. While we don’t encourage work documentation avoidance, the issue is a relatively minor one, and the numbers are small.

Much more problematic, however, is a statement last week from Foggy Bottom, where a spokeswoman suggested that the rising visa rejection rate for Israelis is a response to how Israel treats visiting Palestinian-Americans. “Reciprocity is the most basic condition of the Visa Waiver Program,” said the spokeswoman.

That explanation is troubling and smacks of a double standard. We hear repeatedly of visitors to the United States from the Middle East — even ones who hold American passports — who are subjected to increased scrutiny and questioning at the border because of various legitimate security concerns. So, what’s wrong if Israel adopts a similar, protective policy? And if reciprocity is the standard, why shouldn’t Israelis visiting the U.S. be accorded the same visa courtesy and status as American visitors to Israel?

We urge the parties to work together to develop a solution by which Israel can join the U.S. Visa Waiver Program, thereby making movement between the two countries freer and more enriching.  Full reciprocity makes sense. Double standard policies don’t

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