The State Department is responding to pressure from Israel’s friends on Capitol Hill and is reviewing its policy on granting tourist visas to Israeli citizens.
Julia Frifield, the department’s assist- ant secretary for legislative affairs, announced on April 17 the formation of a working group with the Department of Homeland Security and Israel’s Foreign Ministry. The working group will “help Israel move toward eligibility for the Visa Waiver Program,” Frifield wrote in response to several members of Congress.
The Visa Waiver Program was developed to allow citizens of countries within the program to travel to the United States for up to 90 days without needing to apply for a tourist visa. Israel has not been admitted to the program because the rate at which the U.S. refuses a country’s visa applications must be below 3 percent. Israel’s visa refusal rate was 9.7 percent in 2013, up from 5.4 percent in 2012. The State Department has also objected to Israeli security actions, such as preventing entry to travelers deemed security risks, it says have needlessly affected Palestinian and Arab Americans.
Frifield said the working group would strive for a “reduction of the overall refusal rate.”
“This is a goal of both the United States and Israel, and it would make travel easier for citizens of both countries,” she wrote, adding that a follow-up report will be provided in July.
An Israeli diplomat who could not speak on the record confirmed the existence of the working group to the Washington Jewish Week, saying that Israel is interested in the program and that the two countries are taking concrete steps to move the process forward. Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Ze’ev Elkin will head the Israeli delegation.
Israel’s exclusion from the visa program surprised many on the Hill, who believe that the close relationship between the two countries warrants Israel’s membership in the program.
The refusal rate has increased in recent years due in large part because U.S. consular officials responsible for approving or denying individual visa applications began looking closer at applicants considered a high risk for overstaying their tourist visa. Young Israelis, who customarily travel abroad following their military service, have drawn particular scrutiny.
According to a Jan. 25, 2010, cable from the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv published by WikiLeaks, officials were investigating large-scale visa fraud
“in the U.S. Dead Sea cosmetics and skincare industry since 2007, when it became a noticeable problem.”
The cable went on to describe a vast underworld economy that many young Israelis have chosen to participate in to make quick money, working at mall kiosks throughout the U.S. selling “Dead Sea” products and other under-the-table jobs.
“Moreover, it is culturally acceptable for post-army Israelis to work illegally in the United States,” wrote Wendy Vincent, a consular official at the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv. “Aside from the criminal aspects of this fraud, a key implication is the increased visa revocation/refusal and denial of entry rates for post-army Israelis, which among other things, complicate Israel’s high-profile desire to join the Visa Waiver Program.”
Some members of Congress say that just because some Israelis came here for illegal purposes, the U.S. shouldn’t discourage others from coming. Rep. Grace Meng (D-N.Y.) is one of the legislators tackling the issue head on.
“In late February or early March, the State Department had denied that there was a problem,” she said in an email. “They asserted that 83 percent of Israelis who applied for visitor visas aged 21 to 30 received them. This was when I decided to get involved, because I felt that those numbers were not telling the whole story. So I wrote to Secretary [of State John] Kerry asking for more specific numbers. I asked for statistics of tourist visas — a subset of visitor visas — for the smaller age range of 21 to 26.”
In her letter to Kerry, Meng, a member of the Middle East subcommittee, wrote that she was concerned that the “current, apparent presumption of nefarious intent on the part of young Israelis seems unfair” and urged the department to end the practice.
Frifield’s response to Meng acknowledged the problem and said that 32 percent of visa applications by Israelis 21 to 26 were denied in 2013, up from 16 percent in 2009.
Another provision that Israel must meet is reciprocity toward all American citizens. This poses a difficult question for Israel, which has applied strict scrutiny and restrictions on visas for Palestinian and Arab Americans.
“Israel doesn’t have visa requirements for American citizens, but there has been a long history of special treatment of Arab-American citizens and that has raised strong objections by the Arab-American community,” said Philip Wilcox, president of the Foundation for Middle East Peace and a former U.S. consul general in Jerusalem. “I think that the U.S., for good reason, believes that American citizens are American citizens without reference to their racial, ethnic or religious origins and that all are entitled to be treated equally by foreign governments as they are here and that no stigma or suspicion should apply to those American citizens because of their ethnic origin or race.”
The Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported on April 22 that Israeli officials said they were willing to end their restrictions on Arab Americans upon entering the waiver program.
Asked whether this was something the State Department could accept, spokeswoman Jen Psaki expressed that the department wouldn’t budge on the requirement for nations to adapt their policy prior to joining the waiver program, instead of after.
Congress does have the power to override some of the requirements and last year U.S. Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.) introduced the Visa Waiver for Israel Act of 2013 that is currently being reviewed by the House Judiciary Committee.
The committee’s chairman, Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), has also taken a strong stance against exempting Israel from the Visa Waiver Program’s standards.
“As longtime friends and allies, the United States and Israel benefit significantly from travel and tourism between the two countries,” Goodlatte wrote. “I believe that countries wishing to participate in the Visa Waiver Program must first satisfy the requirements for participation under the Immigration and Nationality Act for admittance to the program. Once Israel satisfies these requirements, I would warmly welcome their participation in the program, so that we can further bolster the strong relationship between our countries.”