Israeli officials on Wednesday rejected espionage allegations reportedly made in American intelligence circles, the latest obstacle to Israel’s inclusion in the visa waiver program that would ease its citizens' travel to the U.S.
According to a report in Newsweek, some American counterspy officials say Israel is pursuing espionage efforts against the U.S. that have “crossed red lines” and far exceed those of any other close ally.
The espionage claims emerged ahead of a visit by U.S. national security advisor Susan Rice, who arrived in Israel on Wednesday for high-level consultations on Iran and the peace process.
If past espionage involved more classic intelligence interests -- as in the case of Jonathan Pollard, who was convicted of spying on the U.S. for Israel and was sentenced to life in prison in 1987 -- the recent charges reportedly voiced in several classified hearings and reports suggest Israel’s current focus is industrial.
Such concerns reportedly are holding up agreements that would include Israel in the U.S. visa waiver program. The waiver, which eases travel to the U.S., is reserved for nationalities that are deemed as posing little security threat and that are not major sources of immigrants who enter the U.S. illegally.
Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman denied accusations of espionage, calling them a malicious fabrication aimed at harming relations between his nation and the U.S.
“We do not engage in espionage in the U.S., neither directly or indirectly,” he told Israel Radio on Wednesday.
Off the record, Israeli officials went further, saying the report carried a "whiff of anti-Semitism." According to local media, an unnamed Israeli source said someone was “gunning for the visa waiver program” by playing the intelligence card.
Previously, a key obstacle keeping Israel out of the program involved charges that American citizens of Palestinian and other Arab descent faced unequal treatment when traveling to Israel, facing delays or even refused entry. “Reciprocity is the most basic condition” of the program, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki stated in March.
A main sticking point concerns many Palestinian Americans who appear in the Palestinian population registry and intend to visit the West Bank. Such travelers are often required to enter through the Allenby crossing from Jordan rather than Ben-Gurion International Airport near Tel Aviv and to limit their visit to the West Bank.
Israel has promised to ease these restrictions in order to qualify for the program that would exempt Israeli citizens from the need to obtain a visa to visit the U.S., currently a lengthy and costly process for Israelis.
Another issue concerns young Israelis who travel after mandatory military service and have difficulty convincing authorities they intend to return to Israel after visiting the U.S. An estimated 20% of their visa applications are refused.
Two years ago, the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv launched a campaign warning young Israelis of the risk of abusing tourist visas to work illegally in the United States.
In recent weeks, the embassy has announced a safer way for college students to live and work in the U.S. legally during summer vacation from academic studies as part of a summer travel-work program.
In a recent Facebook post, U.S. Ambassador Dan Shapiro emphasized that young Israelis were welcome visitors and said measures to increase the numbers of visas granted would be considered.
Including Israel in the waiver program after it met the legal criteria was a “common goal” of both countries, he wrote. The issue will be addressed by a bilateral working group currently being established.
In a column published last week, former Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. Danny Ayalon dismissed the last round of espionage reports and said that allowing them to delay approval of a waiver as “inconceivable and even insulting.”
Israel wouldn’t risk its tight defense and intelligence cooperation with the U.S. for any marginal information it could otherwise obtain, he wrote. If Israel did, it has more sophisticated options than using tourists, added Ayalon, who suggested the waiver program was being used as diplomatic leverage.