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Reversing earlier position, Likud ready to fast-track bill to allow Israel’s inclusion into US Visa Waiver Program

Under the last Knesset, Likud blocked the passing of legislation considered a prerequisite to join program

Passengers at the Ben Gurion International Airport, Oct. 31, 2021. (Photo: Nati Shohat/Flash90)

Israel’s Likud party, led by Israeli Prime Minister-elect Benjamin Netanyahu, reportedly is preparing to pave the way for Israel to join the United States Visa Waiver Program. 

Likud MK Danny Danon, Israel’s former ambassador to the United Nations, reportedly told U.S. Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides on Friday that Likud will be working to ensure Israel is included in the program. According to the report, Danon said that the nascent Israeli government wants to speed up passage of the necessary legislation to join the program during the first months of 2023. 

If or when Israel joins the program, it will become the 41st country to be included. The Biden administration has expressed interest in Israel joining the program, with U.S. President Joe Biden telling former Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett that he wanted to see Israel included. 

The U.S. Visa Waiver Program “enables most citizens or nationals of participating countries to travel to the United States for tourism or business for stays of 90 days or less without obtaining a visa,” according to the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Consular Affairs. 

The process of applying for a visa is time-consuming and costs money; it might take months for an application to go through, with the process requiring an interview at the U.S. embassy, to ensure that the traveler is not intending to remain in the U.S. indefinitely. 

The potential traveler submits their passport to the embassy only after having been approved with an interview. From then on, it can take weeks before the passport is returned to them with a visa inside.

Due to the  COVID-19 pandemic, the visa-application process has become so drawn out that some Israelis reported having to wait for interview appointments at the embassy for up to a year.

Likud’s assurance that it supports Israel joining the U.S. Visa Waiver Program offers Israelis potential savings in both time and money. It also represents a position change, as the party was viewed in recent months as blocking efforts to join the program. 

The earlier position of the then-minority bloc appeared to be motivated by a desire to prevent the caretaker administration of Prime Minister Yair Lapid any diplomatic victories.

Under the last Knesset, Likud blocked the passing of legislation – considered a prerequisite to join the program  – which would have granted U.S. authorities limited access to private information of Israeli travelers to the U.S.

Nides had lobbied Israeli lawmakers for the legislation to pass, following its progress through the stages of parliamentary approval. 

In September, Nides wrote in support of Israel’s efforts to meet the Visa Waiver Program requirements: “More work still – let’s get this done!”

In August, facing pressure from the U.S. ambassador, Likud stated that it did not oppose the bills for political reasons, but that they violated the rights to privacy for Israeli citizens. Likud further noted that, once in power again, it would pass necessary and “responsible” legislation.

“After we form a stable government, the Likud will submit the necessary, but responsible, legislation [to the Knesset] and complete the move by March 2023, so that inclusion in the VWP will not be delayed even one day,” Likud said in its statement. 

There is no specific deadline for the legislation – three bills in all – to be passed, but it has to have been implemented for some time before Israel can join the Visa Waiver Program. This initial stage allows for the development of necessary computer systems and for the U.S. ambassador to submit a formal request for Israel to join the program. 

The legislation is believed to be largely identical to the laws passed in the other 40 countries that have joined the Visa Waiver Program. 

The All Israel News Staff is a team of journalists in Israel.

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