MOSCOW (JTA) – Visitors to the Israeli Embassy on this city’s Bolshaya Ordynka Street are used to waiting in long lines and braving the cold and bad weather for hours to obtain visas to visit the Jewish state.
One Muscovite on line recently said she waited for some 16 hours in order to be at the front of the queue.
“I came here yesterday evening and I cannot leave,” said Albina, 25, who declined to give her last name. “I was unable even to leave for the restroom because I was afraid the people wouldn’t let me in when I came back.”
If a pending visa-waiver agreement between Israel and Russia gets final approval, people like Albina will have to wait no longer.
The foreign ministers of Israel and Russia formally signed a deal to waive the visa requirement for each other’s nationals back on Aug. 24, in New York, but the waiver program has yet to go into effect pending final approval.
Some Israeli officials say they are worried Russia will step up its export of prostitutes to Tel Aviv’s massage parlors, while some Russian officials warn Israelis will start spying on Siberian military installations.
“Thousands of prostitutes will pour into Israel,” said Israel’s minister of internal security, Avi Dichter, who opposes the policy.
But for the most part, officials in both countries want the visa requirement waived to strengthen trade and tourism ties between the two countries.
“Even if Russia is not ready for mutual visa waiving, we’ll lift visas for Russian tourists unilaterally,” Israeli Tourism Minister Yitzhak Aharonovich told the Russian Novosti state news agency earlier this year.
After the visa process for Russian visitors to Israel was simplified this year, the number of visitors from Russia jumped 76 percent in the first six months of 2007. The waiver program would allow Russian visitors to stay in Israel for up to two weeks without having to apply for a visa.
Yevgeny Satanovsky, vice president of the Russian Jewish Congress and president of the Moscow Institute for Middle Eastern Studies, says the visa waiver program will be mutually beneficial.
“For Russia, this initiative of Israel is manna from heaven because it places Moscow on a par with the E.U. countries and the United States,” he said. Plus, “Jerusalem shows to the rest of the world that Russia is not a country that deserves fencing off.”
“For Israel, in turn, visa-free travel eliminates tons of bureaucratic paperwork and reflects the fact that more than 1 million people have made aliyah from Russia.”
Satanovsky said the two countries should not fear each other’s visitors.
“Suspicions that ‘scum’ from Russia will flood Israel or that Israeli ‘agents’ will sniff out Russian secrets are groundless, not to mention idiotic,” he said.
Roman Spektor, a spokesman for the Eurasian Jewish Congress, acknowledged that a more open visa program inevitably would allow more members of the underworld to travel freely between Russia and Israel, but he said the benefits outweigh the drawbacks.
“In an emergency, when one needs to visit relatives in Israel as soon as possible, people often find themselves in a desperate situation,” he said. “Every Jew, both in Israel and Russia, understands that visa-free travel will enhance the situation for Jewry as a whole.”
In July, Israel lifted the visa requirement for nationals of another former Soviet bloc country, Bulgaria. Aharonovich, who is one of the policy’s most strident advocates, hopes to add other former Soviet countries to the list.
“Israel is especially attractive for the visitors from the ex-Soviet Union because they can often communicate here in their native languages,” Aharonovich said.
It’s the irksome visitors Israeli officials are worried about. In the first half of 2007, Israeli police detained 16 prostitutes from Russia and 48 from Ukraine, according to the ministries of Interior and Immigration. During the same period, 66,000 visitors from former Soviet republics were in Israel with expired visas.
Experts say up to 300,000 Russian tourists per year may visit Israel if the visa requirement is waived, including Russian tourists who would choose Israel over Egypt as a vacation destination. Egypt offers Russians visas upon arrival for a $20 fee.
Israel also charges about $20, but a visa is required in advance of travel.
Travel industry analysts say every 100,000 tourists bring 4,000 jobs and $100 million in revenue to Israel.
In September, Israel’s Tourism Ministry announced it was launching a $1.2 million advertising campaign in Russia. The campaign highlights Israel’s beaches, from the waters of the Mediterranean to healing and spas at the Dead Sea, and recreation in Eilat on the Red Sea.
Industry analysts say Russian tourists are less likely to be scared away from Israel by news of Middle East violence, since they are accustomed to instability in parts of their own country.