Senior officials in both Israel and the United States cautiously expressed optimism that Israel is steadily advancing toward ascension into the U.S. Visa Waiver Program by September 30th.
According to high-ranking officials in both countries, Israel seems to be on the right path and is close to meeting all the conditions set by the U.S. for inclusion in this prestigious program.
A U.S. delegation, comprised of representatives from the State Department and the Department of Homeland Security, arrived in Israel this week to confirm that the Jewish state was fulfilling the conditions for admission to the program.
The delegation visited Israel's Ben Gurion Airport and its terrestrial border crossings. They also toured the Population and Immigration Authority's offices. Delegation members wanted to closely examine the process of issuing temporary passports, against the backdrop of American concerns that citizens with problematic backgrounds, both criminal and security-related, might exploit the Israeli passport to enter the U.S. visa-free. The concern primarily pertains to Russia, but also to other countries.
The delegation also examined the process of admitting Palestinian Americans into the country, a practice that has been in place since July 20th. In the first week of its implementation, approximately 1,300 Palestinian-Americans entered Israel through its international border crossings, with most of them coming through Ben Gurion Airport. A similar number of Palestinian Americans passed through the terrestrial crossings from the West Bank into Israel. Estimates suggest that between 2,000 and 2,500 Palestinian-American citizens entered and left the country in the first week.
Israel reportedly denied entry to a very small number of Palestinian-Americans - the majority of these refusals were for immigration issues rather than security reasons. Furthermore, it was revealed that Israel is probing every instance of any Palestinian-American denied entry into the country.
The delegation, which is set to leave Israel on Thursday, was highly satisfied with their findings, and its members commended Israel for the significant progress made in recent weeks. The delegation requested improvements in the treatment of passenger data arriving in Israel via foreign airlines by the Tax Authority. Currently, the Tax Authority is linked to 30-40% of foreign airlines, and the Americans want to see more progress on that issue.
In light of the American request, there will likely be a delay in the submission of the delegation's report, which will determine if Israel meets all criteria to be included in the Visa Waiver Program. After the report is submitted, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken is expected to sign off on Israel's candidacy for the program.
According to projections, the endorsement of Israel's candidacy for the U.S. Visa Waiver Program is expected to be postponed from August to mid-September, aligning closely with the deadline for U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas to finalize the decision. U.S. officials have expressed concerns that Israel's Tax Authority may not achieve its set objectives, potentially leading to a further delay in the candidacy decision. If Israel fails to meet the September deadline, it could face a wait of at least another 18 months to two years, at which point the entire process would need to be restarted.