Israel’s changes for entry to the Visa Waiver Program a welcome step; strict monitoring and enforcement needed

September 27, 2023

J Street joins all those in Israel and the United States who are pleased that travel between the two countries will now be easier for most of each other’s citizens. This is a positive step in the right direction.

We have long advocated for Israel’s entry to the Visa Waiver Program, once it meets the criteria for entry that every other country must meet. Chief among these, the reciprocity principle requires that all American visitors be treated equally without regard to national origin, religion or ethnicity.

While Israel has made some significant and welcome improvements in easing travel for all Americans, we are concerned that the way the Visa Waiver Program is being implemented today does not yet fully meet the reciprocity standard – and our hope and expectation is that further steps will be taken and commitments fulfilled to ensure the reciprocity principle is fully met and upheld by Israel. The Memorandum of Understanding signed with Israel in July does not require it to fully implement one system that all U.S. citizen visitors, including those who Israel deems residents of the West Bank, can use for purposes of visa waiver travel until May 1, 2024. That means there will not be full reciprocity for all US citizens for more than half a year following the September 30, 2023 end of the current window for meeting the full range of the program’s qualifying requirements – including a low visitor visa refusal rate in the previous two fiscal years.

Earlier this month, 15 Senators wrote to the Secretaries of State and Homeland Security noting that, “there is no provision in law that provides that a visa waiver country can discriminate against certain groups of U.S. citizens for the first seven months of the program… it would be a violation of law to rush to admit a country that does not meet a key requirement of the program in one year simply because it may not be able to comply with a different requirement [the low visitor visa refusal rate] the following year.” Like these Senators, we will closely watch implementation over the coming year and beyond to ensure that the principle of reciprocity is fully upheld and that no Americans face discrimination.

Even those of us pleased by the easing of travel between the United States and Israel must acknowledge that the Visa Waiver Program’s requirements are being bent and adjusted to accommodate Israel in a way that they have not been for other countries. In light of this special accommodation, the US must monitor and enforce the obligations that Israel is undertaking with the utmost seriousness. If discrimination against some groups of Americans continues either on paper or in practice, Israel’s entry to the Program may regrettably need to be suspended or terminated.

These concerns about the implementation of the program and our call for close and careful monitoring do not alter our hope that the underlying goal of this effort – to ensure freer and easier travel for all US and Israeli citizens to each other’s countries – can be achieved in the year ahead.