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​Israel demands free entry of citizens into US, amid standoff over Palestinian settlements

Published time: March 29, 2014 22:28
AFP Photo / Max Nash

AFP Photo / Max Nash

Israel is voicing displeasure about its citizens not being able to enter the US as freely as they would like. While the latter stands firm on Israel’s failure to meet the necessary requirements, the question of Palestinian settlements also looms.

Israel is pushing for an entry into the US Visa Waiver Program – a membership enjoyed by 38 countries, many of which Israel sees as not being nearly as dedicated to a political friendship with America as it is.

The US has given a list of reasons for why this isn’t happening, like Israel’s treatment of Arab-American visitors at the airport – something Israel denies flat out, the AP reports.

But Israel is now also seeing a dramatic spike in visa rejections for its citizens that has taken place in the course of only one year. Its younger travelers (including many who have served in the armed forces, and wish to perform a now-traditional trip to the US after being discharged) are being turned away by the dozen, it seems. Statistically, rejection has risen from 5.4 percent to 9.7 in 2013, which is an 80 percent increase. Even though the US State Department’s Jen Psaki claimed at a briefing last week that 90 percent of Israeli applicants get through – its only 80 percent for the early-twenties category, the Israeli government sees the new figures to be discriminatory and a result of a concrete agenda.

The US, meanwhile, maintains that it’s still largely possible for Israelis to get the 90-day ‘B’ visa for business or travel purposes.

In the meantime, Israel still has among the highest-ranking visa approval ratings when visiting the US. And it’s fair to say that other countries’ US visa rejections have also gone up overall. And by contrast, their approval rate isn’t half as good as Israel’s: Belarus got almost 21 percent of rejections in 2013, while Bulgaria’s was nearly 20, and Ireland’s close to 17.

A New York Democrat Senator Charle Schumer is urging the State Department to "end its widespread, arbitrary practice of denying young Israelis tourist visas." Some members of Congress even sought legislation that would free Israel from adhering to any conditions whatsoever presented by the Visa Waiver Program.

Reuters / Gil Cohen Magen

Americans don’t need a visa to enter Israel. Americans of Palestinian heritage, on the other hand, get frequently turned around at Israel’s Ben Gurion International Airport, having to seek alternate routes through Egypt or Jordan.

Jen Psaki has said that the US remains “concerned with the unequal treatment that Palestinian Americans and other Americans of Middle Eastern origin experience at Israel's border and checkpoints, and reciprocity is the most basic condition of the Visa Waiver Program," although the US has also occasionally voiced concern that a lot of young Israelis would simply stay in the US if they didn’t have sufficient ties to their homeland.

US diplomats also cite conditions such as the issuing of biometric passports, proper procedures for reporting missing or stolen documents and allowing free access into Israel of all persons with American citizenship.

But another, arguably larger, problem looms in the background, and that is the diplomatic standoff between Israel and the US, whose use of Secretary of State John Kerry’s diplomacy regarding Israel’s plans to build settlements on Palestinian territory is, mildly speaking, disliked by Israel.

So much so that Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon called Kerry “messianic” and “obsessive” in his quest to broker peace between Israel and Palestine. He added that America’s plans for regional peace in the Middle East are completely worthless, especially when it won’t do much to wipe out the Iranian nuclear program before it has a chance of coming to fruition.

Psaki saw these remarks as “offensive” and thought an apology was in order.

Israel's Deputy Foreign Minister Zeev Elkin, meanwhile, believes that a workable solution could be found to get Israel on the Visa Waiver Program, if the US so desired. "Israel is among the friendliest countries to the US and there is no reason why we shouldn't be part of the program."

Israel has also taken steps to make that happen more swiftly, one of which was a promise to allow Palestinian-Americans to enter and pass through Ben Gurion without turning them around, as the AP found from speaking to Elkin.

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