By Omri Nahmias

A bipartisan group of House members sent a letter to US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas, urging them to add Israel to the Visa Waiver Program.

Representatives Lee Zeldin (R-New York), Kathleen Rice (D-New York), Michelle Fischbach (R-Minnesota), Grace Meng (D-New York), Brian Mast (R-Florida) and Elaine Luria (D-Virginia) spearheaded the letter, with an additional 52 members signing it.

“We write to you in support of Israel’s participation in US Customs and Border Protection’s (CBP) Visa Waiver Program (VWP), which allows citizens and nationals of participating countries to travel to the United States for up to 90 days without obtaining a visa,” the lawmakers wrote on Monday. “We are encouraged by Secretary Mayorkas’s remarks last month confirming that Israel is in the ‘pipeline’ to be added to the program. These remarks follow a bilateral meeting in August between President Joe Biden and Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, where Israel’s participation in the VWP was discussed.”

According to the lawmakers, Israeli travelers account for $1.2 billion in spending annually, with an average of $4,000 in personal spending per trip.

“Israel’s participation in this program would grow the US economy, strengthen national security at each of our borders, and increase opportunities for people-to-people exchange, which bolsters our already unique bilateral relationship,” the letter reads. “We know you share in the goal of ensuring that the benefits that the Visa Waiver Program promises to US tourism, to our country’s national security, and to the US-Israel relationship are realized. We therefore urge you to expediently add Israel to the Visa Waiver Program and provide an update to Congress on the status of the current negotiations.”

Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked met with Mayorkas last week to discuss the visa waiver, and said afterward that the process to grant visa exemptions will not be finished before 2023.

“There is a mutual desire for this to succeed,” she said, and that the two decided to establish governmental teams to tackle the remaining challenges. The US team will visit Israel in January, and Shaked and Mayorkas will follow up once a month.

“We agreed that a team of US officials will arrive in Israel in January to discuss additional details that need to be worked out,” Shaked said. “We have two primary tasks: the first is to establish a system that would allow the US immigration officers to check if a certain person who seeks entry has a criminal record – the US could inquire about some 1,000 Israelis a year. It would require us to make some adjustments, such as a legislative change to allow the US to access our criminal records system.”

The second task, she said, is to lower Israel’s refusal rates to 3% by next September.

“There are several things that can be done to meet this threshold,” Shaked noted. “For example, we asked Mayorkas’s team that if a person opens a visa application but ends up not submitting it, [that] it wouldn’t count as a refusal. Today, such cases count as if a person who did not complete the form was rejected.

“Another cause for refusal is the high volume of applicants in their early 20s. [Former ambassador to Washington] Gilad Erdan raised this issue in his meetings at the DHS, and explained that in Israel, many people in their 20s are going on a long trip after army service.”