Put Israel first, allow visa legislation to pass, US ambassador pleads to Israeli lawmakers

In unusual move, U.S. embassy tried to persuade Likud to pass legislation needed for visa waiver program.

By Lauren Marcus, World Israel News

Israel’s entry into the U.S.’s Visa Waiver Program (WVP) is in jeopardy due to political game-playing, and the opposition must not use legislation related to the program as a bargaining chip, the U.S. Ambassador to Israel said in a statement on Tuesday.

“I’ve been working around the clock since I arrived to help Israel meet all the requirements to join the Visa Waiver Program,” Ambassador Thomas Nides wrote on Twitter.

“Don’t lose momentum now. This will help Israeli citizens travel to the U.S. — put them first!”

The Visa Waiver Program allows citizens of designated countries to enter the U.S. for 90 days without a visa. Forty countries are already in the program and Israeli officials have been lobbying to be included for years. While the vast majority of American citizens can fly to Israel without obtaining a visa in advance and obtain one upon landing, Israelis must apply for a visa before traveling to the U.S.

The American government needs access to sensitive data about Israeli citizens, including criminal records and passport information. Access to those records can only be granted by legislation passed by the Knesset.

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Walla News reported that in a highly unusual move, the U.S. Embassy called veteran Likud MK Yariv Levin to persuade him to allow the bills to move forward.

As the opposition, led by former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party, squabbled with the current government around the dissolution of the Knesset, critical legislation needed for the program to come into effect was blocked as part of a tit-for-tat battle over a date for new elections in the fall.

The coalition, led by Yamina’s Naftali Bennett wanted the election to take place on November 1, which in fact was the final conclusion, while Likud and the opposition parties wanted polls scheduled for about a week earlier, on October 25, according to Hebrew language media.

It’s believed that the opposition, which includes ultra-Orthodox parties, wanted the earlier election date because it comes one day before yeshivas reopen following the High Holy Days.

On Twitter, Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked of Yamina urged Likud to “remove its veto on the law we need [to implement] to get a waiver from visas to the U.S.”

Shaked referenced the massive backlog and lengthy waiting times for in-person interviews at the U.S. embassy which are needed for a first-time visa, with some Israelis waiting more than a year for the meetings.

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Several Hebrew media reports have speculated that Likud wanted to delay Israel’s entry into the Visa Waiver Program long enough to deny the coalition an opportunity to claim success ahead of elections.

With the dissolution of the Knesset today, new elections were called for November 1 and the visa waiver legislation did not pass.