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Israel and US sign information sharing deal, inch closer to visa waiver agreement

Larger issue of restrictions on US citizens from Gaza and the occupied West Bank entering Israel without a visa has yet to be resolved
The Israeli and United States flags are projected on the walls of Jerusalem's Old City, to mark one year since the transfer of the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, on 15 May 2019 (AFP)

Israel and the United States signed an information-sharing agreement on Wednesday that brings Israel closer to entering the US Visa waiver programme, the Haaretz newspaper reported.

The agreement will allow each side to file 1,000 inquiries regarding the criminal records of citizens looking to enter the respective borders.

Granting the US access to criminal records is a prerequisite for any country that hopes to join the waiver programme. Israeli officials in the past have said such access would require Knesset legislation, and a spokeswoman for Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked said it still would be required.

"Today we took another step on the road to visa exemptions for Israelis and signed an agreement that was a necessary criterion" for [entry into the waiver programme]," Shaked said, according to Haaretz.

Israel has been trying to enter the programme for years, in the hope that it will eventually become the 41st country whose citizens are granted visa waivers to the US.

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Last year, US President Joe Biden told Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett that he was prioritising the initiative. A group of bipartisan lawmakers in Congress have urged the White House to see it through, arguing that it will boost tourism and national security.

US and Israeli officials say they hope Israel can be added to the programme by the end of 2022. However, stumbling blocks remain. 

Washington requires partners in the programme to provide reciprocal privileges to all US passport holders at all points of entry in the foreign country. This means all US citizens in Gaza and the West Bank would need to be allowed visa-less entry into Israel - something Israel does not currently grant, over what it says are security concerns.

In January, Shaked said that giving Palestinian Americans domiciled in the territories an Israel transit option "is a demand by the Americans going back many years".

"The Shin Bet (Israeli security service) can handle it, and in the context of the visa waivers - if that process does indeed happen - an American who also has Palestinian citizenship will be able to enter Israel like any American," she said, according to the Reuters news agency.

Shaked said her staff was also addressing US complaints that Arab Americans are subject to unusually intrusive questioning by Israeli airport security.

Among proposals, she said, was for security agents to receive airline passenger lists 12 hours in advance, to enable more selective screening.

Another condition for the US visa waiver is reducing the current Israeli applicant refusal rate to three percent. According to Haaretz, the rejection rate for 2020 was 6.7 percent.

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