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US-Israeli visa controversy wages on

April 2, 2014 at 2:53 pm

America’s visa waiver programme allows citizens of specific countries to enter the US for tourism, business, and in transit for up to 90 days without having to obtain a visa. It currently applies to 38 countries – and there are efforts to up that by one and include Israel.

The Hebrew daily newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth reports that they deputy foreign minister, Ze’ev Elkin, is presenting a list of requests to US officials. Among these requests is that Israelis over the age of 30 can travel to the US for business and tourism purposes without a visa. Elkin is expected to offer in return to implement visa changes that will make it easier for American businessmen to travel to Israel.

Meanwhile, a recommendation for including Israel in the programme is working its way through congress. In January, the House Foreign Affairs Committee approved a bill naming Israel a “major strategic ally” of the US and recommending its inclusion in the visa waiver programme. It will be voted on by the full House at some point in the future. This is just the latest effort to exempt Israel from visa rules; there have been several over the years.

So will it be any different this time? On the basis of current evidence, it seems not. The Jerusalem Post reports that the primary reason Israel is not eligible for the visa waiver programme is because of discrimination against Arab-Americans visiting Israel. Jen Psaki, the state department spokeswoman, told reporters last week: “The Department of Homeland Security and State remain concerned with the unequal treatment that 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 Visa Waiver Program.” Israel maintains that its rate of refusal of entry for Arab-Americans is not disproportionate.

There is also a technical barrier for Israel’s entry to the programme. One of the key criteria is that countries wishing to join must have a rejection rate of less than 3 per cent for their citizen’s US visa applications. Last year, 9.7 per cent of Israeli applicants were refused, up from 5.4 per cent last year (other allies also saw an increase in refusal rates last year).

Clearly, the push to include Israel in the programme is politically driven. The Senate bill suggests that visa waiver status be granted after certifying that Israel “has made every reasonable effort, without jeopardizing the security of the State of Israel, to ensure that reciprocal travel privileges are extended to all United States citizens.” The Times of Israel reports that lawmakers – including supporters of Israel – are concerned about this wording because it could validate the tendency to turn away Arab-Americans.

Much of the anxiety in the Israeli media stems from the idea that the US has introduced a policy of denying visa requests to Israeli youth, as well as military and intelligence officials. The State Department has categorically denied that this is the case. Refusals of individual young Israelis’ visas are most likely linked to organized crime around the Dead Sea industry. It is also worth noting that other allies of the US also saw an increase in refusals of visas last year, so it appears there is tightening across the board.

While the Obama administration appears unlikely to include Israel in the visa waiver programme for the time being, the importance of Psaki’s comments should not be overstated. The emphasis is on Americans of Arab origin, not Palestinians or other Arab citizens. As such, current policy on the visa waiver programme does not suggest a change of tack by the US, merely a continuation of the status quo.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.