Israel's 10-year-long journey to be accepted into the Visa Waiver Program began with Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, then, a high-level bureaucrat in the Obama administration who was the first to take Israel's request seriously and guide ministers through the arduous process. He had spent time in Israel in his youth and even speaks some Hebrew.
His family history adds a poignant layer to this tale; his mother, a Holocaust survivor originally from Romania, first sought refuge in Cuba before the family immigrated to America.
His involvement began in 2014 when then deputy foreign minister Ze'ev Elkin ignored the advice of officials not to waste time on the democratic bureaucrat and asked to meet with him after discussions with the State Department yielded no results.
'He greeted me in Hebrew and I nearly had a heart attack'
"I found a warm and pleasant man who greeted me in Hebrew and asked how I was," Elkin recalls. "I nearly had a heart attack." After they talked about the time Mayorkas spent on Kibbutz in Israel, where he picked up the language, they got down to business.
Mayorkas laid out the steps that must be taken and outlined the best path forward. It was not smooth sailing. Israel not only had to navigate the bureaucracy involved, it also had to overcome security concerns, legislate new laws and agree to things it had refused to contemplate in the past.
In Washington, a new administration came in and the question of Israel's acceptance into the WVP was forgotten. Only after the 2020 elections did the efforts resume.
Gilad Erdan: "My awareness of this issue dates back to 2016. It was during that time that I first met Mayorkas, who visited Israel in his capacity as the Under-Secretary of Homeland Security." Erdan says.
"When I became ambassador to Washington, I made Israel's acceptance into the WVP a priority. I brought the matter up with Naftali Bennett who was the prime minister and he raised the matter with U.S. President Joe Biden in their Oval Office meeting and even requested that Mayorkas be in attendance. Biden promised Israel's participation in the program would be resolved on his watch and said so in a public statement allowing the administration officials to engage with their Israeli counterparts to move the process along.
Bennet tasked his close allies and then Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked with coordinating efforts with Washington. She was greatly assisted by then U.S. Ambassador to Israel, Tom Nides who saw the challenge as his baby. The two had teams traveling back and forth working on every aspect of the requirements. When things hit a bump, either Shaked or Nides stepped in to resolve whatever obstacles were in the way. Unfortunately, Nides did not remain in his post long enough to see the happy conclusion to the saga.
During the Bennett-Lapid government, the opposition under the leadership of Benjamin Netanyahu actively obstructed legislation needed to comply with the program which included the transfer of information on the criminal records of Israelis and free passage to and from Israel for Americans of Palestinian origin including freedom of movement for them while in the country.
Netanyahu's motivation stemmed from a reluctance to attribute this achievement to the Bennett-Lapid administration causing a substantial delay to the consternation of all including Nides who urged Netanyahu to back down.
Only when Netanyahu returned to power, did he announce his full commitment to the process and cleared the path for the required bills to be passed. But some in Washington were reluctant to give the prime minister the perceived win. "Punishing Netanyahu won't be the outcome, Nides argued. "Instead, it will be the Israeli citizens who will suffer and most of all those who oppose the judicial legislation, for the high-tech industry who travel back and forth the most."
Now all current and past officials, from Netanyahu on down are squabbling over who deserves the credit. There is no question though, that without Mayorkas, things would have taken much longer.
Not everyone approves of Israel's acceptance into the VWP
Amid the excitement surrounding the official American announcement, a significant tweet went unnoticed, revealing a potential setback. The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) filed a lawsuit in the Michigan District Court, aiming to block the move due to alleged discrimination against countries not included in the program.
As per the indictment obtained by Ynet, the US State Department and Homeland Security allegedly manipulated the program's rules to facilitate Israel's inclusion. The lawsuit argues that Israel, while receiving special treatment, discriminates against Palestinian-American citizens, violating the program's principle of granting visa-free travel to all US citizens.
"The requirements of the Visa Waiver Program are clear and unambiguous," claimed ADC National Executive Director Abed Ayoub. "The US government is obligated to ensure that all Americans are treated equally. It is our intent to hold the US government accountable for any actions that create separate classes of US citizens. Admitting Israel into the Visa Waiver Program would be an endorsement of discrimination against Palestinian and Arab Americans."
Dissent came from other sources as well. Adam Shapiro, DAWN's Director of Advocacy for Israel/Palestine, said, "The U.S. should halt implementation of the visa waiver for Israel at least until a judge reviews what we believe to be the government's arbitrary and capricious actions that enshrine Israeli apartheid in a U.S. program. Our government should not allow Israel to discriminate against Americans, regardless of their national origins."
He went on to say: "Separate can never be equal, as was determined decades ago in the fight for civil rights in this country. 40 countries participate in the VWP, and none have formal arrangements to discriminate against American citizens; only Israel has demanded and been granted this unconscionable favor by the U.S. government."
Both the US Department of State and the Department of Justice have thus far refrained from commenting on the matter, stating their policy of not addressing ongoing legal proceedings.