When Israel's acceptance to the Visa Waiver Program was announced by the US, Israeli politicians rushed to take the credit. Benjamin Netanyahu, Naftali Bennett, Ayelet Shaked and even Eli Cohen. This was no surprise because the project was intensively managed over two years from 2021 until last week, so two politically rival governments were responsible for it.
Continuity was provided by ministry officials led by Gil Bringer, who was appointed in 2021 by then Minister of Interior Ayelet Shaked to lead the project. Between 2015 and 2019, he served as Shaked's advisor when she was Minister of Justice on issues regarding the Ministerial Committee for Legislation. In 2021, Bringer was appointed Deputy Director General of the Population Authority, and he recalls that on that already on the first day he attended the initial meeting on the Visa Waiver Program. He remained responsible for the program even after the change of government.
A policy of continuity between two governments
"I was left in the job by Ministers Deri, Malchieli and now Moshe Arbel," says Bringer. "There was a policy of continuity between the two governments."
Bringer, who took the project from the US initiative phase to crossing the finish line last Thursday, tells "Globes" what the impact will be on the economy, why the American demands overall helped Israel, and what the new responsibility of airlines flying to the US.
"Efforts to admit Israel to the Visa Waiver Program have been continuing for over a decade, maybe even 15 years. At the end of Obama's term, when I was an advisor to Ayelet Shaked as the Minister of Justice in 2016, someone from the Israeli Embassy in the US contacted us and said that we needed to act quickly to obtain an exemption from visas because Alejandro Mayorkas, of Cuban Jewish origin, was US Deputy Homeland Security Secretary and "there had never been anybody who was so into it.'
"According to the person, this was an opportunity that would not be repeated. But in retrospect it was very naive - the Visa Waiver Program is such a long and complex project, and there was no way to use the final months of Obama to do it. But the same Mayorkas returned in the Biden administration, and became the minister himself."
Due to the complexity of the subject, and the fact that it embraces seven different government authorities, a project head was needed to coordinate it and without that, it would have been very difficult to push for the completion of the project. Indeed, according to Shaked, "Biden promised Bennett that it would happen on his watch. I was given the responsibility to complete this very complex task. I asked the Minister of Homeland Security, Alejandro Mayorkas, why some countries succeeded and some did not? He told me: Get a project chief."
Since then more than two years have gone by, why has it taken so long?
"The waiver is a huge project that requires involvement of the Population Authority, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the National Security Council, the Shin Bet, Cyber Authority, Ministry of National Security and the Israel Tax Authority. The US work plan must be carried out exactly by the book, and it includes a lot of tasks that involve many offices, and some of them several offices working together.
"It will be like traveling to Petah Tikva or Eilat"
What is the biggest thing that is new about the agreement?
"People focus on the line on Hayarkon Street in Tel Aviv (to issue a visa at the US Consulate in Tel Aviv), and this is an image that people experienced as humiliation and a headache, not to mention the uncertainty. It is impossible to schedule a trip, because you do not know if and when you will receive a visa.
"But it's not the line on Hayarkon Street that's the main thing, but the economic impact. It opens us up and brings the US and Israel closer together. People have told me about CEOs and VPs of startups who gave a Zoom pitch to a potential investor, and the investor gets excited and says 'I want you with us, show it to our management in a week', and we have to answer him - 'Oh, but I don't have a visa '. It can take even a year, and by then it's no longer relevant."
On the other hand, Bringer says, in the new situation, "A trip to the US will be like a trip to Petah Tikva or Eilat." You fill out the ESTA, get an answer within a few hours, buy a ticket, and tomorrow night you're already there. It will be possible to determine things even for the near future, and this allows for both spontaneity and certainty. This is how a much more united and close business community is created. On an economic level, it has a big impact."
"More than 75% of venture capital investments in Israel come from foreign funds, most of them American. According to Bringer, the move, "Will improve trade relations, bring the business communities closer to each other and facilitate meetings with investors." This is especially important for the tech industry, where a major part of investments come from US companies and investors.
The frequency of flights to the US is expected to increase significantly. Beringer says, "The demand side for flights will increase significantly, but also the supply side. We will see new companies, new routes and new destinations, and this in turn could also generate more noticeable competition. It is of course difficult to predict in advance what this will do to fares."
As for the question of reciprocity towards US Palestinian citizens, when Israel passed the technical threshold of below 3% visa refusals for Israelis, the US Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides published a video in which he called on Israel to pass laws that would allow the entry of those American Palestinians into Israel, which provoked concerns about security. But in the end Israel had to agree, and starting July 20, American Palestinians were able to get a 90-day entry visa through an application relatively easily, instead of the cumbersome route through Jordan that was previously required.
Is the price that Israel is paying on allowing entry to American Palestinians worth it?
Bringer tries to soothe concerns. "I'm not sure that I would call this a price. In terms of numbers, since the opening in July 6,070 Palestinians have entered through international borders who are also registered as Palestinians. Very many of them are not from here and have been living for years abroad. In internal checkpoints from Judea and Samaria to little Israel the number is significantly two or three times higher.
"The entry to the US without a visa will only be open to biometric passport holders, which raises concerns about stronger demand for issuing biometric passports. The Population Authority already promised to increase the number of appointments in offices."
Isn't there a concern of a rush to Population Authority offices to get biometric passports?
"It's not that from now on you can't travel to the US without a biometric passport - but only on the VISA Waiver Program. Those who want to travel with their visa can continue to do so as usual. There is no requirement for a biometric passport to issue a visa, and there isn't either now."
"In the long run, this reduces the burden on the Population Authority"
Bringer, "I hope that people will lose a little more desire to make a temporary non-biometric passport. The non-biometric passport is only for one year and that only creates more burdens. So, in the long run, we clear lines at the Population Authority."
Is there a concern that the visa waiver will be taken away from us? What do you recommend to Israelis who use the new waiver?
"As long as Israel and the US respect each other's demands in the agreements, the assessment is that this is with us for the very long term. At the same time, the agreement states that each of the countries may, with a 30-day notice in advance, notify the other that it is terminating the waiver arrangement. It may fall on a feeling or a claim that the other country has stopped honoring the obligation it has, such as mutual information sharing."
But the responsibility here is not only of the Israeli authorities, but of every traveler to the US. "There is a great personal responsibility for people in every country with a visa waiver. The Americans check how many citizens have stayed in the US beyond the 90 days of the ESTA. If this number increases, the country may find itself outside the agreement. On an individual level, those who stay beyond 90 days will never receive an ESTA. And on a general level, this raises the percentages and puts us at risk as a country of being denied the visa waiver. Those who stay beyond what is allowed drill a hole not only in their own boat, but in the national ship."
What will you do now that this big project is over?
"I'm now in Washington for the ceremony, and I promise to stay there and not leave until I make sure they sign. And next? I plan to look for the next big management challenge."
Published by Globes, Israel business news - en.globes.co.il - on October 2, 2023.
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