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Jewish Journal

Israel’s visa waiver chances dim

by Jonah Lowenfeld

February 13, 2014 | 10:29 am

Rep. Brad Sherman

Rep. Brad Sherman

Right now, an Israeli citizen who wants to travel to the United States has to contend with long lines at the United States Embassy in Tel Aviv and a long wait to see if the visa application will be approved. Even Miss Israel had to cancel an appearance at an event in New York last year because she couldn’t get a visa in time. 

The odds that Israelis will soon be able to avoid such bureaucratic hassles just got a good deal longer. 

On Jan. 29, the House Committee on Foreign Affairs gave its approval to the H.R. 938 U.S.-Israel Strategic Partnership Act of 2013, a pro-Israel bill with broad support in the House of Representatives. That bill, which increases cooperation between Israel and the U.S. and has 351 co-ponsors, may have moved one step closer to a vote on the House floor, but it advanced without legislative language that would have admitted Israel to the United States’ visa waiver program, which would have granted Israelis the privilege of traveling to the United States without applying for a visa in advance.

Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Sherman Oaks) has twice introduced stand-alone legislation granting Israel entry into the program, and he managed to convince Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) to include the language in her version of the legislation, S. 462. But despite Sherman’s efforts, the text approved by the House Foreign Affairs Committee, of which Sherman is a senior member, merely requires the secretary of state to report back to Congress on whether Israel has satisfied the requirements for entry into the program. 

In 2013, when Sherman first introduced his stand-alone version of the visa waiver bill, he secured support from then-Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. Michael Oren and Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon. He described the language in H.R. 938 as “a placeholder that will allow us to add our language at some future date,” but acknowledged that the prospects for Israel’s entry into the program as being about “50-50,” at best. 

For that to happen, Boxer’s bill would have to advance in the Senate in its current form, including a clause drawn from Sherman’s bill that, according to Arab-American, Muslim-American and civil liberties groups, exempts Israel from a key requirement of the program. 

“For a country to be admitted into the visa waiver program, they have to grant reciprocal travel privileges,” Yasmine Taeb, government relations manager for the Arab American Institute (AAI), told the Journal. While Israel currently waives visa requirements for Americans, AAI has accused the Jewish state of discriminating against Arab- and Muslim-Americans, and has compiled stories from “dozens of U.S. citizens,” said Taeb, who, upon arrival to Israel, were “treated differently, detained or denied entry, simply because of their ethnicity or religion.”

“I would be very surprised if [Boxer] was able to bring her bill either to markup or to the Senate floor as it is right now,” Taeb added, “because it won’t pass.”

Sherman disagreed with the characterization of his legislative language as exempting Israel from any requirement, arguing that the security measures currently employed by Israel at its borders are not dissimilar to those the United States uses when dealing with citizens of countries currently in the visa waiver program. 

Clearing the Senate is only one hurdle. Were the Senate and House bills to pass in their current forms, they would still need to be reconciled by a conference committee, at which point Sherman’s preferred language could again face scrutiny. 

Even if the bill is signed into law with the visa waiver clause intact, Israel would still need a pass on one more key qualification for entry into the visa waiver program. In 2013, Israel’s “non-immigrant visa refusal rate” — the rate at which American consular workers in Tel Aviv decline to issue tourist or business visas to Israelis — was 9.7 percent, far higher than the 3 percent rate required for entry to the program, and even above the temporarily relaxed 8 percent benchmark under which eight countries, including the Czech Republic, Estonia and South Korea, qualified in 2008 for the program. 

In an interview, Sherman didn’t dispute that the odds are stacked against Israel’s entry into the visa waiver program, but said he believes the reasons have far more to do with the way business gets done in Washington and in Congress. The visa waiver provision faces opposition from the executive branch, Sherman said, which “hates the legislative branch telling them what to do,” and from the House Judiciary Committee, which traditionally prefers not to name particular countries in the legislation it approves.  

“But, overwhelmingly, the obstacle is visas are part of the immigration discussion,” Sherman said, “and a little thing that should go through is a very different thing when it’s part of such an intractable discussion.” 

Which means that if the House fails to pass immigration reform this year, not only will an estimated 11 million illegal immigrants be no closer to gaining legalized status, not only will the Republican Party be no closer to improving its standing among the United States’ growing Latino population, but Israelis also will be no closer to the day when they can travel to the United States without applying for a visa first.

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