Sens. Rick Scott (R-FL) and Jacky Rosen (D-NV) led a group of 18 bipartisan Senators urging the Biden administration in support of granting Israel's inclusion into the U.S. Visa Waiver Program.
In a letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas, the lawmakers emphasize Israel being America's "closest ally in the Middle East," and their admission "achieves" the two explicit missions of the Visa Waiver Program (VWP) — enhance national security and to boost the U.S. travel and tourism sector.
"Israel — our closest ally in the Middle East — is a perfect candidate for the Visa Waiver program," the letter reads. "Were Israel to enter the VWP, these measures would improve law enforcement cooperation and counterterrorism collaboration between the U.S. and Israel, which would deepen our relationship with a key ally and trading partner. Israel is also an economically prosperous country that is a major U.S. security partner, presenting a high-volume, low-risk opportunity to add to the program."
"Adding Israel to the VWP will also directly support tourism to the United States," the letter adds. "Increasing the number of applications through ESTA by adding Israel to the VWP will directly support tourism and travel to the U.S, which is our nation's number one service export, generating a trade surplus of $59 billion in 2019. Moreover, new Israeli travelers to the U.S. will invest in our local businesses — from hotels and restaurants to live events and attractions."
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) also signed on to the letter led by Scott and Rosen. Other bipartisan joining the efforts included — Sens. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Roger Marshall (R-KS), Mike Braun (R-IN), Ron Wyden (D-OR), Bill Hagerty (R-TN), Josh Hawley (R-MO), John Hoeven (R-ND), Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), Catherine Cortez Masto (D-NV), John Hickenlooper (D-CO), Maggie Hassan (D-NH), Kevin Cramer (R-ND), Ben Cardin (D-MD), Michael Bennett (D-CO) and Tim Scott (R-SC).
The Visa Waiver Program allows citizens of participating countries to enter the U.S. for 90 days without applying for a visa. It is administered by the State Department and has stringent entry and security requirements. There are currently less than 40 countries in the program.
Israel has long desired to join the program but doesn’t meet the "strict, congressionally mandated requirements" for participation. There are major obstacles that currently exist in standing in Israel's way to its inclusion. The percentage of Israeli visa applicants rejected annually remains high at 6.5%, well above the cut-off allowed. American officials have raised concerns about Israel’s treatment of Palestinian-Americans at its borders in the past.
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett has been ramping up efforts since being elected to guarantee the Jewish state's inclusion in a special visa program by 2022. During his visit to Washington D.C. in August, Bennett discussed the issue with President Biden during their bilateral meeting.
The White House, in a readout after the meeting, emphasized how the Biden administration is working with its Jewish counterpart to "strengthen bilateral cooperation with Israel in ways that would benefit both U.S. citizens and Israeli citizens, including by working together towards Israel's inclusion in the Visa Waiver Program."
Mayakoras confirmed in late October that Israel was one of the four "candidates in the pipeline" for participation in the program during a travel event. Last Month, Mayorkas tweeted that his office "remains committed to working with Israel to help it meet all Visa Waiver Program requirements."