A new era in U.S.-Israel relations is opening with Israel’s admission to the U.S. Visa Waiver Program.
Amid the headlines about Israeli President Isaac Herzog’s visit to the White House and address to Congress, it was easy to overlook a major piece of good news: Israel may finally be in the home stretch of its bid to enter America’s Visa Waiver Program (VWP).
Late last week, outgoing U.S. Ambassador to Israel Thomas Nides, Undersecretary of Homeland Security Robert Silvers and Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. Michael Herzog signed a memorandum of understanding that sets the stage for Israel to enter the VWP by Sept. 30.
Israel’s inclusion in the VWP is a significant issue on the U.S.-Israel agenda this summer. It will transform people-to-people ties, which are the lifeblood of the alliance between the two countries. America’s steadfast relationship with Israel stretches back to the Jewish state’s founding in 1948 and has increasingly strengthened over the following 75 years.
The two countries share a common heritage as refuges for immigrants, bastions of democracy and hubs of innovation. But one thing has run contrary to the spirit of intense and sincere cooperation: Israelis are not among the favored citizens of some 40 countries who can travel to the United States without facing the costly, time-consuming and stressful visa process.
Not only have countless Israelis faced visa uncertainties, but every Jewish community in the U.S. bears these added costs for sister cities, school partnerships, reverse Birthright programs and myriad other cross-cultural exchanges.
Israel’s entry into the VWP will finally end this abnormal state of affairs, thereby facilitating travel and promoting economic and cultural exchange. Israel, as a close ally of the U.S. and a thriving nation, is coming close to meeting the program’s congressionally mandated requirements by adjusting some entry rules for American citizens who are also nationals of several Middle Eastern countries.
Inclusion in the VWP will further strengthen the immutable bond between the U.S. and Israel. As a participating country, Israel would enjoy streamlined travel for its citizens, thus fostering closer political ties between the two nations. Inclusion will demonstrate U.S. recognition of Israel’s stability, security and commitment to international norms, reinforcing Israel’s status as a responsible and trustworthy partner in the region.
Both countries also stand to reap economic benefits. Israel boasts a robust and innovative economy and is known as the “Start-Up Nation.” By including Israel in the VWP, the United States will open doors for increased trade and investment opportunities. Economic hubs such as Atlanta, Boston, New York and the Bay Area have enjoyed huge surges in Israeli investment and travel, including the opening of popular new airline routes by carriers like United Airlines. This will expand further when Israel is admitted to the VWP. Thus, Israeli entrepreneurs and technology professionals, renowned for their ingenuity, will contribute even more to the American innovation ecosystem, fueling collaboration and job creation in both countries.
Beyond the tangible benefits of the program, as an instrument of American public diplomacy admission will send a strong signal to everyday Israelis of the solid bonds between the U.S. and Israel. These bonds will be removed from politics, removed from whatever disputes of the moment are monopolizing the outward appearance of the relationship and removed from any one president or prime minister.
The economic benefits will not stop there. Israelis profoundly love travel and tourism, and as international travel returns to pre-COVID levels, the U.S. will undoubtedly be high on their destination list.
For those of us in the American Jewish community with profound ties to the Jewish state, the VWP will serve as a bridge that brings people closer together, fostering personal connections, mutual understanding and shared values. By enabling Israelis to travel freely to the U.S., the VWP will strengthen the already vibrant network of academic, scientific and cultural exchanges. Israel’s impressive array of scholars, artists and cultural figures will have an easier time bringing their knowledge and skills to the U.S., promoting collaboration between universities, research institutions and cultural organizations. This will enrich both societies through shared knowledge, experience and perspectives.
As Israel reaches the finish line of this decade-long quest, we must thank the bipartisan coalition of 65 senators who recently signed a letter urging the U.S. government to advance the VWP process. Kudos should go to officials in the Biden administration, chief among them Ambassador Nides and Undersecretary Silvers, as well as Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas, who have all paid extraordinary attention to achieving this milestone. Many member organizations of the Conference of Presidents, as well as Americans and Israelis of good will, advocated tirelessly and made their voices heard. Ultimately, we all prevailed over a small minority of naysayers who wanted to turn this question into a referendum on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, the umbrella organization I lead, is laser-focused on ensuring that the next six weeks of preparation and trial runs go smoothly, so that by the next U.S. Independence Day, Israelis will find it easier to say, “This year in America.”
William Daroff is Chief Executive Officer of the Conference of Presidents.
This piece was published by the Jewish News Syndicate on July 23, 2023. To view the original, click here.