Senator Schumer and others divert the US from important Israeli security matters by insisting on US tourist visa waivers for Israeli travelers. There’s a good reason why Israel is denied the visa waiver.
When it is said that the American “government” is pro-Israel, this refers to the executive branch, or to Congress, or both. It almost never refers to the State Dept., a pro-Arab bastion for decades. Going all the way back to Israel’s creation in 1948, the US, upon the initiative of US President Harry S Truman, became the first country to recognize the new State of Israel — over the vigorous objections of, and to the great disappointment of, the State Dept. So it has been, more or less, ever since.
However, in a current clash between the State Dept. and Israel, we believe that the State Dept. has the better case. We believe that Israel and her supporters in Congress and the American Jewish community are extremely short-sighted in making a big deal out of an issue that, even if they were right, is not a big deal. But they are not right.
This is the issue: The US has a tourist visa waiver policy for countries especially friendly with the US. In this context, “friendly country” does not refer to positive diplomatic ties, nor to the extent of US foreign aid to the other country, nor to the extent of military or intelligence cooperation between the US and the other country. “Friendly” refers to the rate of refusal by the State Dept. of tourist visa applications from the other country.
Only if the visa refusal rate is below 3% are the countries eligible to apply for the State Dept.’s visa waiver program. Israel consistently scores above the 3% refusal rate. For years (as JTA reports in this week’s paper, page 7), Israel’s refusal rate has hovered around the 6% mark — double the required rate. In 2012, the rate of refusal was 5.4%. In 2013, it was 9.7%.
Overall, the reason for the refusal is bad Israeli manners: Young travelers who sell fraudulent goods at American malls, who work illegally in the US, who walk away with towels from hotels, and other such offenses. Rather than raising a hue and a cry with the State Dept., leaders such as Sen. Chuck Schumer of NY should deliver a simple, straightforward message to Israel: Clean up your act. Get your house in order. Then the problem will go away by itself.
But no. You would think — from the decibel level of the rhetoric issuing from pro-Israel Congresspeople and American Jewish activists — that the US was denying Israel funding for anti-missile batteries or other absolutely critical armaments for the safety of the State of Israel.
We are astonished to see AIPAC backing a bill on enhancing the Israel-US relationship that includes a clause to waive the 3% requirement. Sorry. Fighting the wrong battle. And choosing the wrong horse. Bad manners of Israeli travelers should never be introduced into policies on vital security arenas of US-Israeli cooperation.
Rep. Grace Meng (D-NY) actually sent a letter to US Secretary of State saying:
“Such traveling [by young Israelis upon the conclusion of their Army service] is a time-honored and venerable tradition in Israel. This is the Israeli way of saying ‘Thank you for your service.’ While Israeli society asks its young adults to fight in the world’s most dangerous places, it also affords them the opportunity to heal from the wounds of war and become citizens of the world.”
All true. But all irrelevant. To enjoy the lofty goals articulated by Meng, all that young Israeli travelers need to do is to obey the law and to be courteous while on their travels.
Schumer, not to be outdone by Meng, issued a statement in his own high dudgeon:
“Let’s punish the wrongdoers instead of making it impossible for young Israelis to come see our beautiful sites, eat in our restaurants, stay in our hotels and support all the jobs related to those activities. It makes no sense to deny tourist visas to all young Israelis simply because of the actions of a few.”
A few? That’s precisely the point, Sen. Schumer. It’s more than a few. Take off your horse blinders. Judge the matter dispassionately. In this minor matter, Israel is wrong. Save your clout for Israel’s really important needs — her security needs.
There is ample reason to press Sec. Kerry on critical Israeli security requirements concerning the peace talks he’s shepherding with the Palestinians — on borders, on Israeli defense arrangements, on a Palestinian willingness to call a permanent halt to its hostility to Israel by recognizing Israel as a Jewish state permanently entitled to exist as such. Do not press Kerry on a triviality especially when, in this particular case, his State Dept. policy is defensible.
Do not give Sec. Kerry a flimsy reason to become frustrated with Israel and her American supporters.
It is up to the Israeli travelers to improve their image by changing their behavior. If they are burdened by the State Dept. policies, they can remove that burden themselves.
The US embassy in Tel Aviv runs PR campaigns discouraging Israelis from misusing tourist visas to work illegally in the US. A video on its website is titled, “The Price is Too High.” Just exactly why do you think the embassy needs to run such a campaign and produce such a video? Because the problem is Israel’s, not the State Dept.’s.
It would be helpful if pro-Israel supporters such as Eliot Engel (D-NY) would lower the profile on this issue, keep it out of US legislation, out of discussions with the State Dept., and tell Israel what it needs to hear.
Save the importunities to the Secretary of State of Israel’s best friend in the world for the real priorities — the truly important military, intelligence and other security issues essential for Israel’s survival.
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