Replacing the Welcome Mat

In 2013, some 12,000 Israeli citizens who applied for tourist visas to the United States were refused. That’s 9.7 percent of the approximately 125,000 who applied, according to figures just released by the U.S. State Department.

More disturbing is that this figure represents a sharp, 80 percent increase over the rejection rate of 2012, when 5.4 percent of applicants were told that they weren’t welcome in the United States, even for a short visit. As recently as 2007, only 2.5 percent of those seeking U.S. tourist visas were denied.

What’s behind this unsettling trend? After all, considering the long and close friendship between the United States and Israel, and considering that many in Israel have either business or family ties in the United States and vice versa, why do Israelis even need a visa? Wouldn’t it only be natural for Israel to be included in America’s Visa Waiver Program that allows travelers from 37 countries to enter the U.S. for business or leisure for up to 90 days without a visa?

The two issues — the growing rejection rate and Israel’s difficult-to-explain exclusion from the Visa Waiver Program — are actually connected. Sources in Israel say that the U.S. consulate is rejecting an ever-larger number of Israeli visa applications in order to keep Israel from qualifying for the waiver program — which only admits countries who have a tourist-visa rejection rate of under 3 percent.

Israel meets many of the criteria for acceptance into the program. It is politically and economically stable, so that Washington needn’t worry that lifting the visa requirement for its citizens would result in large-scale illegal immigration. But, obviously, Israel has no control over the too-high visa rejection rate.

Congress has been trying to resolve the issue. The House Foreign Affairs Committee last month approved a bill that names Israel a “major strategic ally” of the United States (the only country to enjoy such status) and recommends that it be allowed to join the waiver program. Similar legislation is under consideration in the U.S. Senate.

The debate over the bills has focused attention on another sticking point: For Israel to be admitted to the waiver program, and for all its citizens to be granted visa exemptions, it must reciprocate and offer all U.S. citizens unhindered entry into Israel, including Palestinians and Arabs.

Obviously, it isn’t feasible for Israel to blindly open its door to every Arab who obtains U.S. citizenship. “Given the security challenges we face, every effort is extended in this regard,” then-Israeli Ambassador to the United States Michael Oren wrote to members of Congress who signed a letter demanding that Americans be accorded all rights “to which they are entitled” upon arrival in Israel.

Oren noted that a total of 142 Americans were denied entry to Israel in 2012, 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 during that period was 5.4 percent.

U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (D-Fla.), who co-sponsored the House bill with Ted Deutch (D-Fla.), says the United States should show solidarity with Israel, which is “surrounded on all sides by war, heightened tensions and increased instability.”

The solution to this quandary is to tone down the demand for reciprocity in a way that takes reality into account. The wording of the Senate bill does exactly that, demanding only that the government of Israel 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.”

Finally, it’s important to acknowledge that responsibility for Washington’s refusal to throw open its doors to all Israelis doesn’t rest solely with the State Department. Unfortunately, past experience has shown that some Israelis have not behaved as honored guests should. They haven’t demonstrated an understanding that a U.S. tourist visa is not just a privilege, but a responsibility. (The sales tactics practiced by certain Israeli-owned businesses in shopping centers, for example, does little to enhance the image of Israelis in the United States or to increase support for Israel’s admission to the Visa Waiver Program.)

The terms of the visa — whether they relate to the length of stay or what activities are permitted — must be scrupulously observed for the sake of bilateral relations and, much more importantly, in order to prevent chillul Hashem.

Both sides must make a special effort to resolve the impasse, especially now, when Israel faces the threat of boycotts and diplomatic isolation.

It is more important than ever that the close friendship between the United States and Israel be acted upon, not just understood, and the designation of Israel as “a major strategic ally” and its inclusion on a list of countries whose citizens don’t need visas is a very visible sign of closeness.

This warm manifestation of friendship takes on special meaning when Israel is being asked to take profound security risks, both regarding the Palestinians and regarding Iran, based on its relationship with the United States.