Israel Won’t Sacrifice Security For Visa Waiver Program


Legislation that would let Israelis visit the United States without visas but would bar American citizens who are deemed security risks from receiving full reciprocal treatment when traveling to Israel has become a source of friction between Congress and the Obama administration.

Israel’s entry into the 37-nation U.S. Visa Waiver Program is the most controversial element in a pair of broader U.S.-Israel bills dealing with everything from improving cybersecurity to enhancing economic cooperation. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen is hoping to get the House Foreign Affairs Committee’s approval before Congresss’ August recess. A version by Sen. Barbara Boxer is picking up support in the Senate.

Both would create a new category of U.S. ally — “major strategic partner” — designating Israel as the only such nation. And they would call for the inclusion of Israel on a list of countries whose citizens can visit the United States for up to 90 days without a visa, as long as they register electronically before boarding a flight.

But the administration and some lawmakers are concerned that full reciprocal treatment for American citizens will lose out to Israeli security concerns.

Some do not think it sufficient that the Senate bill, for example, requires the Israeli government to make “every reasonable effort, without jeopardizing the security of the state of Israel, to ensure that reciprocal travel privileges are extended to all United States citizens.”

The House’s bill has clear bipartisan backing, with more than 300 co-sponsors. The Senate effort now has 45 co-sponsors, bringing it close to a majority. It is likely to be considered by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in September.

Boxer told The Associated Press the law would require the secretaries of state and homeland security to certify that Israel is doing all it can to facilitate travel for Americans before it can enter the visa waiver program.

Last month, 15 Democratic members of Congress and one Republican wrote a letter to Israel’s ambassador in Washington expressing concern that Israeli border officials were “disproportionately singling out, detaining and denying entry to Arab and Muslim Americans.” They demanded equal treatment, according to the letter obtained by the AP.

“Given the security challenges we face, every effort is extended in this regard,” Israel’s departing ambassador Michael Oren wrote in a June 12 letter to Rep. Keith Ellison and Andre Carson, the two Muslim members of Congress, and the others who signed the original letter.

Oren said 142 Americans in all were denied entry to Israel last year, while about 626,000 were allowed in. That amounts to a refusal rate of 0.023 percent, or about 1 in every 4,400 people. The American refusal rate for Israelis seeking U.S. visas was 5.4 percent, he noted.

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