Washington, Israel Edging Closer On Visa Waiver

WASHINGTON (AP) -

A campaign to allow Israelis to enter the United States without a visa is gaining steam in Congress, but is still running into a brick wall with the Obama administration over its demand that Israel provide the same treatment at its borders to Arab or Muslim Americans.

Objections from U.S. officials and some lawmakers blocked a congressional effort over the last year that could have allowed Israel to maintain its discriminatory entry policies for certain groups of Americans, which no other country can do if its citizens are able to visit the U.S. without visas. However, a new version of proposed legislation could offer Israel greater flexibility in the Visa Waiver Program, and the administration has pledged to work with Israel to help it move closer to qualifying for the program.

Israel’s push to join the prestigious club of 38 mainly European and Asian nations is a top priority for Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s government, the pro-Israel lobby AIPAC and pro-Israel lawmakers.

Citizens of member countries can visit the United States for up to 90 days without a visa, provided they register electronically before boarding a flight.

“Reciprocity is the most basic condition of the Visa Waiver Program,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said recently. Asked if the U.S. might soften that demand for Israel, she said: “No. The requirements have not changed.”

Up to now, many Palestinian-Americans have been barred from entering Israel. If they are allowed into territories under Palestinian control, they cannot arrive at Tel Aviv’s international airport and must instead travel overland from Jordan or Egypt.

Israel has long defended its measures as a security issue and says Americans on a Palestinian population registry aren’t necessarily entitled to enter Israel as a condition of the Oslo Peace Accords.

But there are signs Israel may be inching closer to its goal.

The State Department recently told Congress it would work with Israel to help it meet the program’s requirement that members approve 97 percent of U.S. visa applications. A bill that gives the president the authority to waive that condition for Israel appears to be gaining momentum. And, a senior Israeli official suggested his government could provide greater travel rights to Palestinian-Americans.