By Scott Lasensky
Although the klieg lights of the U.S.-Israel alliance typically spotlight peacemaking, politics and defense cooperation, the most consequential issue on the agenda in terms of people-to-people ties is the decade-long Israeli effort to join America’s highly selective Visa Waiver Program. On Jan. 30, that effort received a huge boost when U.S. Ambassador Thomas Nides announced that Israel met one of the key criteria.
President Joe Biden has elevated this once-obscure issue to top-tier status. In August 2021, when welcoming then-Prime Minister Naftali Bennett to the White House, the president pledged publicly “to work toward Israel fulfilling the requirements” and promised to “get that done.”
Major challenges remain, including Israeli legislation that must be enacted to align Israel with the program’s information-sharing, security and privacy standards, plus measures by Israeli authorities to ensure equal treatment to all U.S. passport holders.
But make no mistake, the finish line is within reach and should Israel achieve this elite status, it will have major, positive implications for an array of Jewish community equities, from sports and youth exchanges to the broader range of educational and community twinning programs that are at the heart of how these two societies engage.
Every American Jewish community, Greater Washington included, should pay careful attention and be prepared to lend its support and engage other stakeholder communities, including Arab-Americans, who also have important equities at play.
Just ask anyone involved in travel and exchange programs with Israelis, including through camps, Jewish community centers, schools and universities, and they will tell you how costly and occasionally disabling the visa process can be. Even still, it is not widely appreciated across the Jewish community how significant these hurdles are, particularly since Israel has long granted visa-free entry to Americans.
As a former American diplomat in Israel, and someone deeply engaged in bilateral exchange and educational cooperation, I hear from communities all the time, often receiving distress calls because an exchange or youth program is facing cancellation because Israeli participants are unable to obtain visas. Moreover, most Israeli-American families have a story about a visa challenge.
In a recently released study co-authored with Israeli writer Ruth Marks Eglash, and sponsored by the Atlantic Council, we lay out the history and current state-of-play, including the many ways in which Ambassador Nides and the Biden Administration have elevated the issue.
After laying moribund under the Trump Administration, prospects for Israel’s entry are gaining momentum. Days before Biden arrived in Israel this past July, the two countries signed a critical data-sharing agreement. The presidential trip itself, with Biden’s historic participation in the 21st Maccabiah, further spotlighted the critical role of people-to-people ties in the alliance. A week earlier, Nides appealed to Israeli leaders not to “lose momentum,” a bold public plea that was widely hailed.
Yet Israel’s ongoing political crisis and its recent election and government formation process slowed Israeli compliance, in particular delaying required legislative action.
Since the United States and Israel have such an extraordinarily intimate and unique relationship, it is surprising to some that Israel has not already been admitted. Israel is, by far, the largest recipient of U.S. foreign assistance, following the signing of a $38 billion, 10-year memorandum of understanding for security assistance in 2016. The two countries’ intelligence, defense and security communities maintain exceptionally close ties. Economic and investment ties have ballooned in recent years and both countries boast large, growing and closely connected expatriate and exchange populations.
But one arena where U.S.-Israel relations lag is in the seemingly mundane, but important area of travel, particularly considering the growing people-to-people and exchange ties, which are central to so many Jewish communities and organizations that invest in Jewish peoplehood.
For decades, Americans have been able to travel freely to Israel without the need to apply for a visa. But most Israelis face a significant hurdle by being required under U.S. immigration law to get a visa prior to travel. Moreover, “some U.S. citizens of Arab or Muslim heritage (including Palestinian-Americans),” according to the State Department, “have experienced significant difficulties and unequal and occasionally hostile treatment at Israel’s borders and checkpoints.” Israel’s VWP admission would address this issue via the program’s Congressionally mandated reciprocity terms, an important subject highlighted in the U.S. government’s Jan. 30 announcement.
The reciprocity requirement is further complicated by specific provisions regulating travel and entry in previous peace agreeements. “Blue is blue,” goes the DHS mantra, reflecting VWP’s legislative anchor in equal treatment for American passport holders. Complexities aside, if admitted, VWP will also be a win-win for all American communities, and will in fact raise standards for Israeli security, according to knowledgeable sources.
For Israelis, visa hurdles, which became even more challenging during the pandemic, are a point of frustration vis-à-vis the country with which they feel most aligned. It’s also costly and burdensome for Jewish communities and for the peoplehood-centered programs that aim to increase connectivity and awareness across our societies.
So, alongside your community conversations about peace, security, democracy and religious freedom, keep an eye on the visa waiver talks. Although success is not guaranteed, this long sought goal is suddenly within reach. ■
A former American diplomat in Israel, Scott Lasensky is a senior adviser with Enter: the Jewish Peoplehood Alliance, an Israel-based nonprofit devoted to ensuring the Jewish people remain united, secure and inclusive.