Legislators, aides, and staffers on two US legislative committees have expressed concerns that allowing Israel to join the US visa waiver program would make the US more susceptible to spying efforts, the Washington-based Roll Call reported this week.
“The US intelligence community is concerned that adding Israel to the Visa Waiver program would make it easier for Israeli spies to enter the country,” said a senior House aide in the report.
This is the first time security and intelligence considerations have been mentioned as playing a role in the deliberations over Israeli acceptance into the program. Previously, Washington said Israel has not been let into the program simply because it has not met certain requirements – biometric passport, reciprocal treatment of US travelers, and a low rejection rate of visa applicants.
Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee Robert Goodlatte (R-VA) “has heard reservations from the intelligence community about allowing Israel into the visa waiver program because of concerns that it would allow in Israeli spies,” said an aide on the committee, according to the Roll Call report.
But the new twist in the long tale of the Israeli application into the 38-country program – a process which first began in 2005 – followed in the wake of a conflicting and optimistic report that a State Department official sent to a New York congresswoman.
Julia Frifield, the assistant secretary of state for legislative affairs, sent a letter Friday to Rep. Nita Lowey (D-NY) saying the US and Israel would create a working group to help the Jewish State gain entry into the Visa Waiver program.
"This is a goal of both the United States and Israel, and it would make travel easier for citizens of both countries," said the letter, obtained by Jewish news agency JTA.
The Department of Homeland Security will also take part in the working group, whose aim will be to ease entry restrictions for Israelis – particularly 21 to 26 year olds who have seen their visas disproportionally rejected. The State Department has admitted that rejection rates for Israelis in the age group had doubled.
Frifield explained a few of the reasons for some of the rejections: “In our initial review, we have learned that there had been increased rates of overstays and illegal employment, particularly for young Israeli visa holders, and that these trends had been observed over a number of years.”
The State Department had previously committed to Congress to reduce rejection rates of young Israelis, a statistic which has hurt the Jewish State's chances of joining the Visa Waiver program.
The Israeli application to join the program has mostly remained in the shadows of the 9-month-long US-led negotiations between the Jewish State and the Palestinians. But certain developments in the decade-long pursuit of the visa exemption have prompted episodes of public discourse regarding the process.
When it was reported earlier in the year that rejection rates for Israelis had increased, Sen. Charles Schumer, a New York Democrat, called on the State Department to "end its widespread, arbitrary practice of denying young Israelis tourist visas."
State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki responded by saying that Israelis are still overwhelmingly granted entry.
"Over 90 percent of Israeli applicants for tourist visas to the United States are approved. For young Israelis, over 80 percent of visa applicants are approved for a visa," she said at a briefing.
US concerns over potential spying efforts by Israel are not unwarranted.
In 2008, Ben-Ami Kadish, an American who had pled guilty to passing classified documents to Israel in the 1980s, was spared a prison sentence because of his advanced age.
Kadish reported to the same Israeli handler as Jonathan Pollard, another American who spied for Israel in the 1980s - and who has been at the center of several scandals that have rocked US-Israel relations in the past three decades.
Associated Press contibuted to this report.