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Israel Enters US Visa Waiver Program

(JNS) Israel on Wednesday, September 27 joined the U.S. Visa Waiver Program, which will allow Israeli citizens to travel to America for 90 days without a visa.

“This decision shows the strong ties between the two countries,” said acting U.S. Ambassador to Israel Stephanie Hallett in a briefing.

Israelis will still need a visa to travel to the United States until the process is finalized, which is expected to be before Nov. 30.

Only Israelis with a biometric passport valid for a decade will be eligible to benefit from the waivers.

According to the envoy, the new procedure will require Israelis to fill out a digital form on the ESTA (Electronic System for Travel Authorization) site, which checks the eligibility of travelers in visa-waiver countries to enter the United States. Answers will be received within 72 hours.

Once granted, eligibility will last for two years. Israelis who travel to the United States for longer periods will still need regular visas.

Also, dual Israeli-American citizens will not be able to enter the US using their Israeli passports but instead must continue to use valid American passports.

Hallet said, “The [U.S.] administration emphasized that all member states of the exemption program are subject to constant review to make sure they meet the conditions, and this will also be the case with Israel. If there is a violation of the conditions, the administration may remove Israel from the exemption program.”

During the State Department’s press briefing on Tuesday, a reporter asked how Washington is evaluating reports about travel into Israel from Palestinian-Americans, which has been a sticking point in the past for Israeli entry into the program.

“Along with the Department of Homeland Security, we have had a monitoring mechanism in place since two months ago, when we launched this program to monitor conditions, to ensure that Palestinian Americans are able to travel freely, to make sure that they are not discriminated against,” said Matthew Miller, the department’s spokesman.

This program will have other significant benefits, relating to security. “Flights will be much safer,” Gil Bringer, the senior official at Israel’s Population and Immigration Authority tasked with finalizing Israel’s admission to the program, told Israel Hayom in August. “For the first time ever, Israel will be able to cross-check incoming passengers with the databases found in Interpol, and not just in cases where there is a stolen passport; it would also apply to people that have a criminal history. We will be able to deny them boarding at their point of origin through the API [Advance Passenger Information] system.”

Israel has sought acceptance into the Visa Waiver Program for decades. One of the issues holding up its admittance has been the U.S. requirement that Israeli authorities treat all American citizens equally, including Palestinian Arabs who hold American citizenship.

Other requirements Israel met included allowing the Israel Police to share biometric data with U.S. law enforcement agencies, a change requiring Knesset legislation. Israel also passed a significant hurdle when the number of Israelis refused visas to enter the United States for the first time dropped below a 3% threshold—a benchmark set by the State Department.

“This is good news for all Israeli citizens! … Within a few weeks Israelis will be able to visit the United States without having to wait a long time for a visa,” said Foreign Minister Eli Cohen.

Cohen said Israel’s participation in the program would “reduce the bureaucracy and cost for entering the United States.”

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