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

Tuesday’s statement by US Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas that Israel is among the four countries being considered for inclusion in the visa waiver program of the State Department’s Office of Consular Affairs The United States has led more than a few would-be travelers to say they will believe it. when they see it.

It is not clear if the other three, Cyprus, Bulgaria and Romania, are equally tired of having that particular privilege in front of them every few years. However, one thing is for sure: Israelis of all socio-economic backgrounds are afflicted with wanderlust and take every opportunity to go around the world, whether they can afford it or not.

This trend has always been a source of curiosity on the part of foreigners, many of whom rarely or never venture beyond their own shores. Americans are often surprised to meet Israelis who have crossed the US, from coast to coast, returning with photo shoots of all the national monuments, from the Grand Canyon and Las Vegas to Disneyworld.

The desperation to fly somewhere, anywhere, has been especially notable during the pandemic, when air travel is a nuisance. Cracking the coronavirus regulations to get out and back in alone seems to be enough of a deterrent. However, it has not been one.

By contrast, Israelis of all stripes are diving into plane tickets for low-cost stints on an Airbnb or luxury vacations in five-star hotels in every imaginable location.

An El Al Israel Airlines Boeing 737-900ER plane takes off from Adolfo Suárez 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 that effect. Along with the closures and quarantines that came with the emergence of COVID-19, the feeling of being locked up was magnified.

Despite its distance and the relatively high cost of airfare to get there, the United States has always been and continues to be a desired destination for the inhabitants of the Holy Land. Part of its appeal, perhaps, is the difficulty young Israelis have in obtaining permission to enter. Those who have been awarded a 10-year seal of approval feel euphoric as it means they don’t have to go through the exhausting before each visit to the “golden medina.”

Others have no choice but to repeatedly go through the grueling process of forms and fees, as well as an interview with a consular or embassy employee in power, and often the arbitrary decision to reject the application. At present, even this procedure is paralyzed, since the first appointment for “pleasure” during these days of the coronavirus is next July.

BEFORE 2018, when former US President Donald Trump recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, he moved the US Embassy from Tel Aviv and closed the US Consulate in East Jerusalem, according to rumor and anecdote, there was an increase in the number of denials of applicants for Israeli visas.

One explanation for the phenomenon was the influx of Israelis who flooded the American “mall market”, selling Dead Sea gadgets and products to passersby in the malls. Most of these twentysomethings did not have work permits and did not pay taxes. Many used the concert as a starting point to stay in the US and live there while applying for green cards. Some went so far as to “marry” US citizens, with all that that entails, such as having to pass inspection by immigration officials who carefully examine their “wedding photos” and question them about their wedding habits.

As a result, Israelis applying for visas often came to their interviews at the embassy equipped with stacks of documents, such as rental contracts or apartment deeds and pay stubs from workplaces, as proof that their stay in the US it would be temporary.

All the hard work wouldn’t be so irritating if Israelis were treated the same as everyone else. However, it happens that there are 40 other countries in the world that enjoy visa-exempt status with the US Citizens of those countries can enter the United States for up to 90 days without a visa, as long as they register electronically beforehand. boarding a flight.

To get an idea of ​​how ridiculous it is that Israel has tried unsuccessfully since 2005 to enter the US visa waiver program, it is only necessary to review the list of party countries and the year they were admitted: 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); Holland (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 the United Kingdom (1988).

Two Congressional bills were introduced in 2013, one proposed by Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R.-Florida) and a different version by Sen. Barbara Boxer (D.-California), to rectify the situation. Although a visa waiver was only one element of the laws, it is the one that caused the most controversy on Capitol Hill.

Guess what.

The White House, the US State Department, and the US Department of Homeland Security under the administration of US President Barack Obama considered that such legislation would be unfair to Muslims. Yes, Team Obama did not think it adequately addressed the problem of Israel’s “discriminatory” practices against Arab Americans on the way to the Palestinian Authority.

One example cited was the fact that Israel prevented certain Arab visitors from landing at Ben-Gurion Airport, forcing them to fly from the US to Jordan and make the rest of the way overland. Expressing dismay at the bills, the Arab American Committee Against Discrimination National Legal and Political Director, Abed Ayoub, said they “allow[ed] for the discrimination of US citizens by another country “, qualifying as” reprehensible that members of the Congress of the United States allow such action to be carried out. “

The same sentiment was echoed in a letter, signed by 16 members of Congress, 15 Democrats and a Republican, to the then outgoing ambassador to the United States, Michael Oren. In the letter, these paragons of Americans accused Israeli border officials of “disproportionately targeting, detaining and denying entry to Arab and Muslim Americans.”

Oren responded in a letter to angry politicians, in which he laid out the facts on the ground: that a total of 142 Americans were denied entry to Israel in 2012, compared with 626,000 who were received without a hitch.

He noted that this puts the Israeli rejection rate at 0.023%, while the American rejection rate for Israelis applying for US visas during the same period was 5.4%. He also stressed what should not have been necessary to repeat: that Israel is forced to take into account the real threat of terrorism on its borders.

However, even subsequent visa waiver negotiations with the overtly pro-Israel Trump administration did not bear fruit. When certain Israeli officials expressed optimism on this matter in 2017, for example, a State Department spokesperson told the Globes financial daily that Israel did not “at this stage” meet the “very strict requirements” of the visa waiver program. “Specifically,” he said, “the administration in Washington remains concerned about the unequal treatment of American Muslims at points of entry.”

ISRAEL’S EFFORTS did not stop 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 multiple ways, “including working together to include Israel in the visa waiver program,” and the two leaders addressed their respective teams to “improve consultations as Israel works to address program requirements.”

Uh oh. This sounded eerily like a not-so-veiled discussion about possible Israeli concessions on border security.

Which brings us to the moment of Mayorkas’s seductive allusion to a possible weakening of the US position on whether to place Israel on the same basis as, say, Estonia and Iceland, while also categorizing the Jewish state as equivalent to Cyprus. , Bulgaria and Romania, where entry visas are concerned.

Although there is no strong evidence that it is related to Bennett’s stated intention last week, and the follow-up on Wednesday, to allow the Civil Administration in Judea and Samaria to advance plans for the construction of 3,130 housing units in Area C from the West Bank, the timing is a bit fishy. The fact that it came immediately after Defense Minister Benny Gantz designated six “human rights” NGOs associated with the PFLP as terrorist organizations is cause for further pause.

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

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