OP-ED On trade and travel, Trump has an opportunity to bolster US-Israel ties

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gives a news conference at Google's Tel Aviv office, Dec. 10, 2012. (Jack Guez/AFP/Getty Images)

(JTA) — When President Donald Trump meets Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel next week, the two are expected to discuss the Iran nuclear deal, the peace process and other issues, including the Trump’s campaign promise to move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv and what the White House recently called “settlement activity.”

But if Trump would like to generate even closer ties between the two countries and greater prosperity for Americans and Israelis, he should consider a public pledge to move faster toward renewing the U.S. Free Trade Agreement with Israel and helping Israelis qualify for visa-free travel to the United States.

Both are critical yet seemingly unremarkable issues on which President Barack Obama achieved progress, but are not yet across the finish line.

America signed its first Free Trade Agreement, or FTA, with Israel in 1985, yet the 32-year old deal is sorely out of date and out of sync with an economic alliance that is booming in myriad and dynamic ways.

Israeli companies are designing and operating path-breaking water desalination plants in California; virtually every U.S. high-tech company has an R&D presence in the “Start-up Nation”; American companies are helping develop Israel’s offshore gas boom; the bilateral trade in services is soaring, and the success of new nonstop flights to San Francisco and Boston is a sign of new vitality and further growth potential.

But lagging behind is our government-to-government framework for trade and investment. This impacts almost every segment of the economic relationship.

For example, Israeli consumers, who face some of the highest costs of living in the developed world, are denied access to many low-cost American consumer goods, including agricultural and food products.

American infrastructure companies rarely compete for large public-sector contracts in Israel. El Al, Israel’s flagship air carrier, still boasts an all-Boeing (i.e. all-American) fleet, but most other transport and infrastructure arenas are dominated by European and Asian contractors and operators. Services have been a growth arena, but there is still huge untapped potential.

A modernized, more open FTA could unleash a flood of new direct investment in both countries and bring relief to Israeli consumers.

By deepening our economic ties and setting an example for other countries, it is also the strongest weapon we have to fight the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement against Israel and efforts to isolate the Jewish state.

Yet all sorts of challenges stand in the way, including traditional Israeli impulses to protect local producers, not to mention the newfound populist sentiment in America against free trade.

But this is not NAFTA and not the Trans-Pacific Partnership. At the end of the day, with adequate political support, a new FTA with Israel is within reach.

A related and equally important piece of unfinished business is granting Israel visa-waiver status. Unlike Americans, who can show up in Israel at a moment’s notice, Israelis need a visa to enter the U.S.

As any American diplomat will tell you, there is no issue Israelis complain about more than our time-consuming and expensive visa process. And it is more than just an inconvenience; there is a deep psychological context.

Israelis live on a razor’s edge, surrounded by enemies. For many Israelis, life is a pressure cooker and foreign travel is a critical outlet and source of reassurance. It helps ameliorate the bunker mentality. And while Israelis can travel visa-free across Europe, Russia, South America and elsewhere, until Israel can meet the criteria for the Visa Waiver Program, or VWP, as defined under U.S. immigration law, the visa requirement will remain.

Younger Israelis, many just out of the military, are among those who find it hardest to prove eligibility for a visa given the need to demonstrate strong ties that will ensure their return home.

In 2014, the U.S. and Israeli governments launched a joint task force and a step-by-step process to help Israel meet the VWP requirements.

One area of progress is the steep decline in the refusal rate, which has been cut in half, a direct result of joint efforts to help Israelis better understand the visa application process. Eligibility for VWP includes a 3 percent ceiling for refusals; Israel is tantalizingly close.

There are other benchmarks Israel still must reach, such as better synchronizing the sharing of traveler data and ensuring reciprocity — that is, equal treatment of all U.S. citizens at Israeli points of entry.

Remaining requirements can be advanced more quickly by senior-level attention, which President Trump and Prime Minister Netanyahu could announce together next week at the White House.

Granting Israel visa-waiver status will increase Israeli travel to the U.S., including professional exchanges, and strengthen investor and business ties that can be further propelled by a new FTA. It will also facilitate closer people-to-people ties between Israeli Jews and the American Jewish community, enabling an even greater sense of partnership and shared destiny.

President Trump, and many around him, have already demonstrated support for erecting new barriers to foreign visitors and commerce, which is why deepening the U.S.-Israel alliance in terms of expanded travel and trade may prove more challenging than expected.

In this regard, concerted appeals from American Jewish leaders and the Government of Israel could prove decisive.

Policies that make Israelis safer, more self-assured and more prosperous will also benefit the bigger ticket, strategic questions that still lay ahead for the Trump administration, like how to address what has become a grinding and destabilizing stalemate on the Palestinian track.

President Obama concluded a historic $38 billion security assistance agreement with Israel — the largest defense package ever extended to any country — and led the way to numerous other upgrades in our bilateral security partnership, from F-35s to Iron Dome to greater intelligence sharing.

Yet outside the security realm, there remains vital unfinished business and opportunities that, if seized by President Trump, could benefit Americans and Israelis and further strengthen their relationship.

Daniel Shapiro served as U.S. ambassador to Israel from 2011 to 2017. Prior to that he was senior director for the Middle East and North Africa at the National Security Council from 2009 to 2011. He also served in numerous advisory positions in the  Congress. Scott Lasensky was his senior adviser in Israel and served in a similar capacity for two U.S. ambassadors to the United Nations, Susan Rice and Samantha Power. Lasensky is co-author most recently of “The Peace Puzzle: America’s Quest for Arab-Israeli Peace.”