Under the coveted U.S. Visa Waiver Program, nationals of participating countries may travel to the United States for tourism, business or while in transit for up to 90 days without having to obtain a visa. There are currently 40 countries that are part of the VWP. Israel wants to be the 41st.
To qualify for VWP status, Israel needs to achieve several significant milestones, First, the rate at which Israel rejects tourist visa applications from U.S. citizens to Israel has to fall below 3%. Second, Israel must agree to share specified traveler biometric data with the United States. And third, Israel needs to assure equal treatment for all U.S. citizens who seek to enter Israel, irrespective of their national origin, religion or ethnicity.
Israel has met the 3% benchmark for rejected visa applications. And the Knesset approved a national center for the collection of data on flights and passengers entering or exiting Israel, from which the requested biometric information can be shared with the U.S. But the issue of equal access is more complicated, depending upon how “equal access” is defined and how it must be implemented.
Israel has focused equal-access compliance on whether Palestinian Americans can enter Israel. Currently, Palestinians are barred from direct flights from the U.S. to Ben-Gurion Airport. Palestinian Americans are required to travel first to Jordan and then fly from Jordan to Ben-Gurion, incurring additional costs and adding to already lengthy travel times. So, Israel is working to allow Palestinian Americans to fly directly into Ben-Gurion Airport and is set to launch a pilot program next month that will do just that.
Under the pilot plan, Palestinian Americans can apply through the military liaison to the Palestinians, the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT), for a 90-day travel authorization to fly into Ben-Gurion Airport to enter Israel. This process is similar to the Electronic Systems for Travel Authorization (ESTA) that nationals in VWP countries fill out to enter the U.S. During the trial period, it will be Israel’s job to demonstrate that Palestinian Americans can apply online to COGAT, get the necessary authorizations and successfully use them to enter Israel.
But even if all that goes well, there are potential sticking points. For example, do the equal access rules apply to Palestinian Americans who travel in and out of Israel from the West Bank, where heightened Israeli security measures are in place? And do they also apply to Palestinian Americans who want to enter or leave the Gaza Strip — home to the Hamas terror organization?
These are not minor concerns. Equal access compliance will impact roughly 70,000 Palestinian Americans who are on the Palestinian Authority’s population registry, half of whom live in the West Bank, and an estimated 400,000 more Palestinian Americans who live in the United States. Israel has legitimate security concerns about some of them.
Nonetheless, if Israel wants to be part of the VWP, it needs to figure out how to satisfy its security concerns while providing verifiable equal access to all U.S. citizens, including Palestinian Americans. There is still work to be done. ■