US-Israeli visa deal may rest on US demand for easing Palestinian travel restrictions

A deal enabling Israelis to travel to the US without a visa is said to have been met with American demands, including permission for Palestinians with US citizenship to travel from Ben Gurion Airport.

By: Manny Ben-David

An agreement currently being finalized that would enable Israeli citizens to travel to the US without having to go through the cumbersome process of obtaining a visa is reportedly dependent upon the easing of Israeli travel restrictions for Palestinians with US citizenship.

The prospective visa waiver agreement, announced on Monday by Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked following strenuous efforts taken by Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit and Deputy Attorney General for International Law Dr. Roy Schöndorf, would see the eradication of a series of obstacles Israelis are currently required to pass in order to travel to the US, including interviews at the US embassy and the payment of hefty financial sums.

Without elaborating on the details, Shaked posted a tweet hailing Israel’s expected entry into a group of nations who are signatories to the US’s Visa Waiver Program, exempting them from complying with arduous visa requirements.

‘Finalizing a Deal’

“We are finalizing a deal to cancel the visas. Ever since I took up the post we have been working with the Americans to join the group of select countries whose citizens are exempt from obtaining an entry visa to the USA,” Shaked tweeted.

“We found the balance between protecting the privacy of Israeli citizens and the demands of the Americans.”

The deal comes on the heels of progress made in a separate agreement—Preventing and Combating Serious Crime (PCSC)—long coveted by Washington, which would enable the US to seek information from Jerusalem pertaining to Israelis suspected of serious crimes.

Despite the optimism surrounding the change, Shaked provided no time frame for when the waiver agreement should come into effect.

Moreover, while a subsequent statement from Shaked’s ministry said she would be departing for the US in the coming days to hammer out the final details and ink the deal, Israelis will only be able to reap its benefits following two legislative amendments made by the Knesset, a procedure that could take up to five years and could come up against a host of stumbling blocks.

One of the amendments would require Israel to soften its comprehensive prohibition on providing information, most crucially fingerprints of Israeli citizens, to foreign governments.

In an interview with Globes, a Shaked spokesperson explained how the Israelis played hardball with the US in its demand that all Israeli fingerprints be handed over.

“At the beginning of the negotiations with the US, they demanded that the fingerprints of all Israelis should be accessible. The State of Israel refused this,” the spokesperson said.

“Recently, the US Department of Homeland Security and the authorities in Israel reached agreement that Israel would copy its fingerprints database in such a way that it would have a separate database of people who have committed serious crimes,” the spokesperson continued, hinting that fingerprints and other information would not be handed over without prior coordination between the two countries clarifying the suspect’s involvement.

Security Concerns on Both Sides

“Under the agreement, the US will be able to clarify with the Israeli authorities whether any person is on the serious crimes database in order to decide whether to allow that person to enter the country.”

Another condition upon which the agreement’s finalization depends is that Israel must exempt Palestinians who possess US citizenship from its current policy requiring all Palestinians traveling abroad to depart from Jordan.

It was not immediately clear whether Israel has yet consented to the idea, citing security security concerns and leaving itself open to similar demands being made by other countries for Palestinians possessing their passports.

In addition, the agreement may not apply to all Israelis, with reports surfacing that the US government has raised concerns over the entry of certain age groups (21-30), a significant number of whom have remained and worked in the US without legal authorization.

Forty-one countries are exempt from the US’s visa requirements, stretching from Germany and Britain to Australia and Japan.