Israel clears major hurdle in bid to qualify for US Visa Waiver Program

US releases data showing rejection rate of Israeli applicants below 3% as required, but warns government has limited time to pass needed laws, ensure reciprocity for Arab travelers

International passengers arrive at Miami international Airport for screening by U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) using facial biometrics

Israelis took a significant step toward securing visa-free travel to the United States on Monday after months of efforts by successive governments in Jerusalem alongside the Biden administration to achieve the long-elusive goal.

A statement from the US Embassy in Israel said that the annual rejection rate of Israeli visa applications during the 2022 fiscal year (October 1, 2021-September 30, 2022) dropped below the three percent benchmark for the first time — a key requirement for any country seeking to enter the US Visa Waiver Program (VWP).

Israel still has to pass three pieces of legislation and make a “public, legislative and legal” commitment to ensuring entry rights for all American citizens by September 30, senior officials at the US Embassy in Israel said in a briefing with reporters earlier this month.

The latter obligation has been a sticking point for the US, which has long objected to the treatment of Arab and Palestinian Americans at Ben Gurion Airport, where they often suffer extended wait times and occasional deportations, particularly when declaring their intention to travel to the Gaza Strip or the West Bank.

The senior US embassy officials warned of a short timeline for Israel to fulfill all of the necessary requirements related to data sharing and information systems across various government bodies, which must be developed, implemented and tested ahead of the deadline.

But if all requirements are met, Israelis will be able to begin traveling to the US without a visa for tourism or business trips shorter than 90 days beginning on October 1, 2023.

Travelers walk to and from their planes at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, Nov. 24, 2020, in Arlington, Virginia (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

“Entry into the Visa Waiver Program is a complex and laborious process. Being below the 3% non-immigrant visa refusal rate is just the one of many steps that Israel must undertake to join the program,” Monday’s embassy statement said. “The government of Israel must meet all requirements to enter the program, and a lot of work needs to be done in a very short amount of time.”

The Foreign Ministry got ahead of itself in its statement, saying in its headline that “the visa to the US is being canceled!”

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