As the United States begins implementing travel restrictions on Russian officials involved in the military occupation and annexation of Crimea, there are signs that the State Department has been quietly denying visas to Israeli military and intelligence officials in accordance with a separate set of U.S. laws.
In recent weeks, a number of Israeli news publications have reported an increase in the denial of visa requests to Israeli youth, military, and intelligence officials. Much of the reporting has focused on speculation that the restrictions are a move by the Obama administration to thwart Israel’s entry into the Visa Waiver Program.
The State Department has categorically denied that there is any broad policy of denying visas to younger Israelis or military officials. By most accounts, the denial of visas to some younger Israelis is linked to widespread visa fraud and organized crime related to the Dead Sea industry, a phenomenon detailed in a 2010 State Department cable made public by Wikileaks.
Regarding the denial of visas to Israeli military and intelligence officials, the most compelling explanation is that the State Department has begun implementing recommendations contained in a 2011 Inspector General report examining operations at the U.S. embassy in Tel Aviv. A crucial finding of the Inspector General’s report was the need for the State Department to provide the U.S. embassy with “updated guidance on vetting Israeli military personnel under the Leahy Amendment.”
In response to a request for information about the denial of visas to Israeli military officials, a State Department spokesperson said visa requests were “adjudicated individually” and in accordance with the law, noting, “When any individual makes a U.S. visa application anywhere in the world, a consular officer reviews the facts of the case and makes a determination of eligibility based on U.S. law.”
The need for this legal scrutiny to actually occur was reiterated in the Inspector General’s report, which stated, “U.S. legislation requires the mission to vet Israeli military personnel who train with U.S. counterparts to make sure they have not committed human rights abuse. The embassy is preparing a standard operating procedure for doing so by checking names against the records maintained at post by various sections of the mission, including material used to prepare the annual Human Rights Report.”
The Leahy Law, a section of the Foreign Assistance Act that has been on the books since 1997, requires the U.S. to withhold assistance from foreign military units or officials who are known to be involved in human rights violations. A New York Times article from 2013 described the scope of Leahy Law enforcement, reporting, “In 2011, 1766 individuals and units from 46 countries, out of a total of about 200,000 cases, were denied assistance because of human rights concerns.”
Widespread enforcement of the Leahy Law appears to have been stepped up in recent years, in part due to advances in technology but also because of new legislative mandates. Beginning in 2010, the State Department gradually increased its use of a new computerized system to vet military officials called the International Vetting and Security Tracking System (INVEST). The system makes it easier for U.S. embassies to screen visa applications using a database with information about individuals and military units believed to be involved in gross human rights abuses.
There have also been significant improvements to the laws regulating military aid, including changes to both the Foreign Assistance Act and the recurring Leahy Law provision included in annual defense appropriations legislation. Last year, Congress updated the Leahy Law as part of the 2014 Department of Defense appropriations bill to bring it more in line with the Foreign Assistance Act.
A report by the Congressional Research Service identified some of the critical changes in the new appropriations legislation, including the expansion of the Leahy Law’s scope from only training, to “training, equipment and other assistance.” The report also highlighted updated language in the law intended to clarify that evidence of human rights abuses does not have to meet the admissibility standard of U.S. courts, changing ‘credible evidence’ to ‘credible information.’
Three years ago Israeli officials reacted to the stepped-up enforcement of the Leahy Law and publicly opposed efforts to hold Israeli military accountable. According to news reports, the Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak and other officials exerted heavy pressure on Senator Leahy to forgo enforcement of the Foreign Assistance Act against three Israeli military units with known involvement in human rights abuses.
In response to the Israeli government’s public and private lobbying campaign, Senator Leahy’s spokesman David Carle explained, “the [Leahy] law applies to U.S. aid to foreign security forces around the globe and is intended to be applied consistently across the spectrum of U.S. military aid abroad. Under the law the State Department is responsible for evaluations and enforcement decision and over the years Senator Leahy has pressed for faithful and consistent application of the law.”
A key factor affecting whether sanctions are applied under the Foreign Assistance Act is the ability and willingness of foreign governments to credibly investigate and prosecute cases of human rights abuses. On this point, the Israeli government has long argued that it has an independent and functioning judiciary that holds Israeli military officials accountable.
In practice, Israeli military officials involved in human rights violations are rarely held accountable. A recent Amnesty International report found that “Israeli forces have repeatedly violated their obligations under international human rights law by using excessive force to stifle dissent and freedom of expression, resulting in a pattern of unlawful killings and injuries to civilians, including children, and have been permitted to do so with virtual impunity due, in no small part, to the authorities’ failure to conduct thorough, impartial and independent investigations.”
While internal investigations involving Israeli military personnel are dropped in the vast majority of cases, this year’s State Department Human Rights Report cited a 99% conviction rate for Palestinians in Israel’s military courts.
Though the United States prides itself on being a nation of laws, it often fails to consistently apply laws like the Foreign Assistance Act and Arms Export Control Act, with enforcement instead being driven by political opportunism.
In response to Russia’s occupation of Crimea, it took less than two weeks for the Obama administration and Congress to announce proposed sanctions on Russian officials. In contrast, Israel’s forty six year military occupation of Palestinian territories has elicited the opposite response, billions in military aid and unconditional diplomatic support.
If it is the case that the Leahy Law is finally being applied to Israeli military and intelligence officials who have committed gross human rights violations, it would be a long overdue but welcome development.