US-Israel visa waivers: Too soon to celebrate?

Former Israeli diplomat said he received the same promise about visa waivers from the Bush administration in 2002.

By Lauren Marcus, World Israel News

Citizens of the Jewish State will soon be able to enjoy visa-free travel to the U.S., top Israeli diplomats said, on the heels of a statement from President Joe Biden during his recent meeting with Prime Minister Naftali Bennett in Washington.

“We’re…going to direct our teams to work toward Israel fulfilling the requirements of the visa waiver program and get that done,” Biden told the press last week, after mentioning the U.S.’s intention to facilitate peace initiatives between Israel and the Palestinians.

With massive backlogs at the American embassy in Jerusalem and branch office in Tel Aviv, Biden’s words came as welcome news to thousands of Israelis who have been unable to secure the in-person appointments needed to obtain a visitor’s visa to the U.S.

Israeli ambassador to the U.S. Gilad Erdan told Hebrew-language media that he was certain the program would become a reality in the near future.

“I have no doubt that after the president’s words, the effort to allow Israelis free entry into the U.S. without having to waste time and money on visas will finally bear fruit,” Erdan said.

But while many Israelis are overjoyed at the news, some are wary of celebrating too soon.

Danny Ayalon, Israel’s former ambassador to the U.S. and one-time deputy foreign minister, wrote an op-ed published in JNS about his experience with American vows to initiate a visa waiver program nearly two decades ago.

“In 2002, when I started my term as Israel’s ambassador to Washington, I received the same ‘promises’ from then-Secretary of State Colin Powell and his consular staff that Prime Minister Naftali Bennett was just given at the White House,” wrote Ayalon.

Despite repeated assurances that the waiver program would be implemented, it never happened.

Ayalon said that American government officials cited a post-9/11 policy that transferred the authority to approve visas from the State Department to the Department of Homeland Security as the reason for the delay.

A joint task force of State Department and Homeland Security officials would need to discuss and eventually approve the terms of the visa waiver program, Ayalon was told.

The task force was never established, Ayalon wrote, casting doubt on the intentions of the U.S. government to follow through on the visa waiver program.

If the program failed to materialize “under four years of Trump, the most pro-Israel president ever, with the most friendly team and the warmest ambassador,” Ayalon wrote, “it’s doubtful the longed-for change will arrive because of the Biden-Bennett meeting.”

Despite the close ties between the two nations in areas ranging from military technology to agricultural innovation, it remains unclear whether the visa waiver program will actually come to fruition this time around.