On visa waiver issue, U.S. wants to know: What’s Israel doing?

Ron Kampeas

The question U.S. officials have about Israel’s quest to get into the visa waiver program is: If Israel wants in so badly, what steps is it taking?

The question comes up in this Newsweek piece by Jeff Stein about how allegations of Israeli spying on U.S. soil inhibit Israel’s joining the visa waiver program.

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I’ve written about how other factors also inhibit Israel’s joining the program, which allows for visa-less travel between the countries. One is Israel’s allegedly discriminatory treatment of Muslim- and Arab-Americans; another is a spike in visa refusals stemming from what U.S. officals say is the burgeoning phenomenon of young Israelis traveling to the United States to illegally peddle Dead Sea products. (The maximum refusal rate for entry into the program is 3 percent, and Israel’s currently stands at over 9 percent.)

The allegations Stein outlines — mostly involving industrial espionage — are not new, and I’ve heard them myself over the years from reliable sources.

One of Stein’s sources gets at what what I’ve also heard underpins U.S. frustration with Israel’s visa waiver quest in all three areas, which is: What steps is Israel taking to meet the requirements? Why is it relying on its friends in the pro-Israel community and in Congress to resolve issues that Israel’s government is better placed to resolve?

From the Newsweek article:

“The Israelis haven’t done s**t to get themselves into the visa waiver program,” the former congressional aide said, echoing the views of two other House staffers working on the issue. “I mean, if the Israelis got themselves into this visa waiver program and if we were able to address this [intelligence community] concern—great, they’re a close ally, there are strong economic and cultural links between the two countries, it would be wonderful if more Israelis could come over here without visas. I’m sure it would spur investment and tourist dollars in our economy and so on and so forth. But what I find really funny is they haven’t done s**t to get into the program. They think that their friends in Congress can get them in, and that’s not the case. Congress can lower one or two of the barriers, but they can’t just legislate the Israelis in.”

I’ve heard similar sentiments. Israel was until recently unwilling to budge at all on the discrimination issue, although Barak Ravid at Haaretz reported last month that it will ease conditions for Palestinian Americans.

On the illegal worker issue, Israel and the United States set up a joint task force last month to consider how best to handle it. Prior to that announcement, U.S. officials made clear to me that they did not see the phenomenon of an Israeli network training Israeli young people to break U.S. laws as a problem for Americans to solve.

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Ron Kampeas is JTA’s Washington bureau chief, responsible for coordinating coverage in the U.S. capital and analyzing political developments that affect the Jewish world. He comes to JTA from The Associated Press, where he worked for more than a decade in its bureaus in Jerusalem, New York, London and, most recently, Washington. He has reported from Northern Ireland, Afghanistan, Bosnia and West Africa. While living in Israel, he also worked for the Jerusalem Post and several Jewish organizations.