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The Not-So-Secret Reason Israel Will Fail to Join Visa Waiver Program

One of Bibi Netanyahu’s highest priorities in Israel’s relationship with the U.S. has been to gain admittance to the select club of 40-odd countries which enjoy visa waiver privileges for citizens entering both countries.  A visa waiver would give a huge boost to tourism, study exchanges, and investment/business opportunities.  But there are a number of significant obstacles standing in the way of Israel’s acceptance into the program.  First, the U.S. denies entry to 20% or more of Israelis who try to enter this country, mostly because they appear to have no visible means of support while staying here.  The rejection number must be no more than 3% for a country to be eligible for the program.

Further, Israel poses a huge obstacle to foreigners seeking to enter who either are Arab, Palestinian or even sometimes, African American.  The rejection rate is quite high, though I’ve failed to obtain an accurate number.  Michael Oren claimed once that only 143 Americans were rejected that year by Israeli immigration, a number which doesn’t even pass the smell test.  Especially since Amira Hass wrote a Haaretz story which noted that “thousands” of such would-be visitors are rejected each year, many of them Palestinian.

Israel has boasted about a new task force headed by deputy foreign minister Zeev Elkin which will supposedly work with U.S. officials to smooth over and address any problems.  It has heralded a supposedly major change that will no longer automatically reject Palestinian-Americans who attempt to enter Israel via Ben Gurion Airport.  But I’ve written here that these developments appear to promise much and deliver little.

Jeff Stein has just published an important piece which blows the lid off this story.  He details the enormity and intensity of Israeli intelligence efforts in the U.S., which aim to steal industrial and technological secrets:

According to classified briefings on legislation that would lower visa restrictions on Israeli citizens, Jerusalem’s efforts to steal U.S. secrets under the cover of trade missions and joint defense technology contracts have “crossed red lines.”

Israel’s espionage activities in America are unrivaled and unseemly, counterspies have told members of the House Judiciary and Foreign Affairs committees, going far beyond activities by other close allies, such as Germany, France, the U.K. and Japan. A congressional staffer familiar with a briefing last January called the testimony “very sobering…alarming…even terrifying.” Another staffer called it “damaging…”

“No other country close to the United States continues to cross the line on espionage like the Israelis do,” said a former congressional staffer who attended another classified briefing in late 2013, one of several in recent months given by officials from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the State Department, the FBI and the National Counterintelligence Directorate.

The intelligence agencies didn’t go into specifics, the former aide said, but cited “industrial espionage—folks coming over here on trade missions or with Israeli companies working in collaboration with American companies, [or] intelligence operatives being run directly by the government, which I assume meant out of the [Israeli] Embassy.”

…“I don’t think anyone was surprised by these revelations,” the former aide said. “But when you step back and hear…that there are no other countries taking advantage of our security relationship the way the Israelis are for espionage purposes, it is quite shocking.

Further, Stein points out that despite promises by PM Olmert that Israel would no longer spy on the U.S., Israeli spies have been arrested since.  U.S. counter-intelligence officials confirm that Israeli espionage continues unabated.  Not just that it continues, but that the nature of Israeli efforts crosses lines that even countries hostile to us won’t cross.  In the most colorful passage in his report, Stein writes:

…Israel is as likely to stop spying here as it is to give up matzo for Passover…

The Israel Broadcasting Authority published a denial (Hebrew) from Israeli government sources which was a real humdinger.  According to them, Stein’s article contains an “anti-Semitic analysis” which portrays Israel as a U.S. “enemy.”  Take that Jeff Stein, you de-legitimizer, you!  Note that when a journalist portrays something that is a known fact he becomes an anti-Semite.  This is the level of diplomatic engagement Israel now has with the world.

Another important point raised in Stein’s article is that the Israeli government believes it can somehow circumvent the agency-review process that might hinder its chances at admission.  It believes that its friends (i.e. water-carriers) in Congress can finesse any internal governmental intertia working against its prospects.  But such expectations are both galling and betray Israel’s hubris:

I.C. Smith, a former top FBI counterintelligence specialist during the Pollard affair, tells Newsweek, “In the early 1980s, dealing with the Israelis was, for those assigned that area, extremely frustrating. The Israelis were supremely confident that they had the clout, especially on the Hill, to basically get [away] with just about anything…

[Similarly] The Israelis “thought they could just snap their fingers” and get friends in Congress to legislate visa changes, a Hill aide said, instead of going through the required hoops with DHS.

Returning to the Elkin task force, Stein quotes a U.S. official who derisively dismisses these efforts and says they amount to nothing:

Congressional aides snorted at the announcement [of the formation of the review body]. “The Israelis haven’t done s**t to get themselves into the visa waiver program,” the former congressional aide said, echoing the views of two other House staffers working on the issue. “I mean, if the Israelis got themselves into this visa waiver program and if we were able to address this [intelligence community] concern—great, they’re a close ally, there are strong economic and cultural links between the two countries, it would be wonderful if more Israelis could come over here without visas. I’m sure it would spur investment and tourist dollars in our economy and so on and so forth. But what I find really funny is they haven’t done s**t to get into the program. They think that their friends in Congress can get them in, and that’s not the case. Congress can lower one or two of the barriers, but they can’t just legislate the Israelis in.”

While Israel may be able to resolve some of the more superficial issues needed to enter the visa waiver program, espionage is the issue that is likely to be determinative and sink Israel’s chances.  When you come right down to it Israel’s spies gain far more through their efforts than Israel would gain through joining the visa waiver.  Therefore, spying will continue and the visa waiver proposal will die with a whimper.

{ 4 comments… add one }
  • Oui May 7, 2014, 12:21 AM

    Great article – thanks!

  • Elisabeth May 7, 2014, 11:11 AM

    In the article it says: “The Jewish state’s primary target: America’s industrial and technical secrets.”
    I find that ironic as the superiority if Israel’s innovations are a regular theme of Israeli nationalists. The world has to thank Israel (or often even “Jewish intelligence”) for practically everything, from cherry tomatoes to mobile phones, and so the world should shut up about the occupation.

  • Jackdaw May 7, 2014, 3:44 PM


    Last week you accused Newsweek of ‘sensationalism’. What a difference a week makes.

    • Richard Silverstein May 8, 2014, 1:25 PM

      @ Jackdaw: “Last week?” Try two months ago. And in case you hadn’t noticed, Newsweek has more than a single writer. The writer who wrote the French anti-Semitism story wasn’t Jeff Stein, whose work I know & respect. Or does it pass the limits of your comprehension that a periodical might publish one piece that’s garbage and another that’s excellent & well-reported??

      Not to mention that your comment was off-topic and more snark than substance. ANother comment rule violation buddy. Keeping a mental record of all this.

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