Is the US visa waiver carrot a stick in disguise? – opinion

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US Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorka’s statement on Tuesday that Israel is one of four countries being considered for inclusion in the US State Department’s Office of Consular Affairs visa waiver program has led more than a few would-be travelers say they’ll believe it when they see it.

It is unclear whether the other three – Cyprus, Bulgaria and Romania – are also weary of having this special privilege before them every few years. One thing is certain, however: Israelis of all socio-economic backgrounds are afflicted with the urge to travel and take every opportunity to fly around the world, whether they can afford it or not.

This trend has always been a source of curiosity on the part of outsiders, many of whom rarely or never venture beyond their own shores. Americans are often shocked to meet Israelis who have crossed the United States from coast to coast, returning with photo ops of all national landmarks, from the Grand Canyon to Las Vegas to Disneyworld.

The desperation to fly somewhere – anywhere – has been particularly noticeable during the pandemic, when air travel is such a nuisance. Deciphering the coronavirus regulations for going out and returning alone would seem to be a sufficient deterrent. Yet it was not.

On the contrary, Israelis of all stripes are flocking to plane tickets for cheap stays in an Airbnb or luxury vacations in five-star hotels in every place imaginable.

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

Claustrophobia could have something to do with it. Living in a state that can be driven north to south in six hours, and east to west in less than two, could have this effect. Coupled with the closures and quarantines that accompanied the onset of COVID-19, the feeling of being locked up has amplified.

Despite its distance and the relatively high cost of plane tickets to get there, the United States has always been and still is a destination of choice for the people of the Holy Land. Part of its appeal may be the difficulty young Israelis have in getting permission to enter. Those who have received a 10-year seal of approval feel elated, as it means that they don’t have to go through exhaustion before each visit to the “golden medina”.

Others have no choice but to repeatedly undergo the exhausting 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 application. . Currently, even this procedure is at a standstill, because the first appointment to be made for “pleasure” during these coronavirus days is next July.

BEFORE 2018, when former US President Donald Trump recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, moved the US embassy there from Tel Aviv, and closed the US consulate in East Jerusalem, rumors and anecdotes said there was had had an increase in the number of refusals to Israeli visa applicants.

One explanation for the phenomenon was the flood of Israelis flooding the American “commercial market”, peddling gadgets and Dead Sea products to passers-by in shopping malls. Most of these young people in their twenties did not have work permits or pay taxes. Many used the concert as a jumping off point to stay and live in the United States while applying for green cards. Some have gone so far as to “marry” US citizens, with all that entails, such as having to pass inspection by immigration officials who look at their “wedding photos” and grill them on their bridal habits. .

Due to the above, Israelis applying for visas would often show up to their embassy interviews with tons of documents, such as rental contracts or apartment deeds and workplace pay slips, as proof that their stay in the United States would be temporary.

All this arduous endeavor wouldn’t be so irritating if the Israelis were treated the same as everyone else. However, it turns out that 40 other countries around the world have visa-free status with the United States. Citizens of these countries can enter the United States 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, just review the list of participating countries and the year of their admission: 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 United Kingdom (1988).

Two congressional bills in 2013, one proposed by Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R.-Florida) and a different version by Senator Barbara Boxer (D.-California), were introduced to rectify the situation. While a visa waiver is only one part of the laws, it is the one that has sparked the most controversy on Capitol Hill.

Guess why.

The White House, the US State Department and the US Department of Homeland Security under the administration of US President Barack Obama have argued that such legislation would be unfair to Muslims. Yes, the Obama team did not believe they had adequately addressed the problem of Israel’s “discriminatory” practices against Arab Americans en route to the Palestinian Authority.

One example cited was Israel’s prevention of some Arab visitors from landing at Ben-Gurion Airport, forcing them instead to fly from the United States to Jordan, and travel the rest of the way by land. Expressing dismay at the bills, the national legal and political director of the Arab-American Anti-Discrimination Committee, Abed Ayoub, said they “allowed[ed] for the discrimination of American citizens by another country ”, calling it“ reprehensible that members of the United States Congress allow such an action to take place ”.

The same sentiment was echoed in a letter, signed by 16 members of Congress – 15 Democrats and one Republican – to outgoing Ambassador to the United States Michael Oren. In the missive, these American paragons accused the Israeli border authorities of “singling out, detaining and disproportionately denying entry to Arab and Muslim Americans”.

Oren responded in his own letter to angry politicians, in which he presented the facts on the ground: that a total of 142 Americans were denied entry to Israel in 2012, compared to 626,000 who were admitted without problem.

He pointed out that this placed the Israeli refusal rate at 0.023%, while the US refusal rate for Israelis applying for US visas during the same period was 5.4%. He also underlined what should not have been repeated: that Israel is compelled to take into account the very real threat of terrorism at its borders.

Nonetheless, even the subsequent visa waiver negotiations with the openly pro-Israel Trump administration did not bear fruit. When some Israeli officials expressed their optimism about it in 2017, for example, a State Department spokesman told the financial daily Globes that Israel was not “at this stage” meeting the “very strict requirements” of the government. visa waiver program. Specifically, he said, the Washington administration continues to be concerned about the unequal treatment of American Muslims at points of entry.

ISRAELL’S EFFORTS did not end 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 several ways, “including working together to include Israel in the visa waiver program,” and the two leaders called on their respective teams to “step up consultations as Israel strives to meet the demands of the program.”

Uh-oh. It looked strangely like a not-so-veiled discussion of possible Israeli concessions on border security.

WHICH brings us to the moment of Mayorka’s beguiling allusion to a possible relaxation of the US position on whether to place Israel on the same footing as, say, Estonia and Iceland – while also calling the Jewish state equivalent to Cyprus, Bulgaria and Romania where entry visas are concerned.

While there is no tangible evidence that it is linked to Bennett’s stated intention last week, and the follow-up on Wednesday, to allow the Civil Administration of Judea and Samaria to advance plans for the construction of 3,130 housing units in Zone C of the West Bank, the timing is a bit suspect. That it came on the heels, too, of the designation by Defense Minister Benny Gantz of six “human rights” NGOs associated with the PFLP as terrorist organizations is all the more a reason for reflection.

If this is the Biden administration’s carrot and stick approach to Israeli policy, Jerusalem should not behave like a hungry rabbit. Israeli tourists deserve to be treated by the United States like their British, Dutch or Australian counterparts. But not at the expense of their security and sovereignty.


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