Kerry: No bias against Israeli visas

Lauren Schneiderman

Secretary of State John Kerry is pushing back against accusations that the government is systematically denying Israeli visa requests, giving lawmakers his “guarantee” that the country’s applications are treated the same as all others.

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Kerry’s remarks, in testimony before a House panel, comes amid mounting criticism, led by Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.).

Schumer, citing data showing a near 400-percent spike in Israeli visa refusals, called in recent days for Kerry to explain the situation. He said his office had learned of a policy shift at Foggy Bottom, under which younger Israelis were denied entrance to the United States over fears that they would violate the terms of their visas.

Such a policy would appear to contradict the State Department’s official policy requiring that all requests be weighed on their own merits.

Kerry, under questioning from Rep. Ted Deutch (D-Fla.), said late Thursday that more than 100,000 visas were issued to Israeli nationals — including 20,000 for people age 21 to 30 — in each of the last few fiscal years.

“So, we'll be happy to give you greater input on that if you want it, but I can guarantee you that visa applications are treated fairly and similarly in all places,” Kerry said.

The concerns center on young Israelis planning to travel in the United States after the completion of their compulsory military service, but before they complete their educations.

The refusal rate for Israeli visa applicants, while fluctuating somewhat from year to year, has spiked from 2.5 percent in fiscal 2007 to 9.7 percent last year, a near 400 percent increase, according to State Department figures.

Deutch said the denial rate might be prompting some Israelis to decide against applying altogether, pointing to videos on U.S. Embassy Tel Aviv's website warning young travelers about the risks of violating the terms of their visas.

“And while I understand that there are cases where the terms of tourist visas are violated, this does not mean that our policy should be to profile young Israelis and to arbitrarily or, as many have suggested, uniformly deny student-aged Israelis, citizens of one of our closest allies, the opportunity to visit the United States.”

A review of State Department data found no across-the-board trend toward more visa rejections, as some countries — South Korea, for instance — have seen their refusal rates rise even more than Israel, while others — including China — have fallen significantly.

But the jump in the refusal rate for Israel is increasingly drawing attention, including concerns from the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s (AIPAC), one of the most powerful lobbying groups in Washington.

Schumer’s criticism, laid out in a story published earlier this week by The Hill, prompted Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) to come forward with similar concerns.

Engel, the top Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said the denials have been “a tremendous source of frustration,” for his office, with constituents complaining that their loved ones have been unable to visit them in the United States.

“I don’t know what it’s all about, but it’s ridiculous,” Engel told The Hill.