Say what, you say. Why would Aipac have anything to say about Congressional ethics legislation?
First, let’s explain that the Democrats took control of Congress on the strength of (among other things) a promise to overhaul Congressional ethics and limit the power of lobbyists. Among the proposed reforms are ones that would disallow Congressional junkets.
Let The Forward explain it all to you:
All-expense-paid tours to Israel are among the most common overseas trips made by members of Congress and their aides. Watchdog groups, using data from congressional filings, have reported that Israel is the leading destination for privately sponsored congressional trips. In the years 2000 to 2005, 164 of the 1,922 overseas congressional visits were to Israel. In the past year, 62 Congress members and staffers visited Israel on trips funded by pro-Israel and Jewish groups. Most of the junkets are sponsored by the main pro-Israel lobbying group, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, through its sister organization, the American Israel Education Foundation. The foundation is the second-largest sponsor of overseas trips.
Other Jewish groups sending lawmakers and their aides to Israel include United Jewish Communities, the national association of federated Jewish philanthropies.
American Radioworks has compiled data on 215 trips sponsored by AIEF at a total cost of $1.3-million. This was the third largest-expenditure among all sponsors of such junkets. At this site, you can see who Aipac feted in Israel and how much it cost us.
Aipac is protesting against the reforms under the guise that their junkets are “educational” trips that inform legislators in a supposedly balanced way about the Israeli-Arab conflict:
Jewish groups are now lobbying Congress to make sure that educational trips, such as those to Israel, be allowed to continue even under the new restrictions being considered. “Trips to Israel sponsored by the American Israel Education Foundation (AIEF) have long been considered among the most substantive, educational and valuable trips available for members of Congress,” Aipac spokesman Josh Block said. “While in Israel, members have the opportunity to meet with both Israeli and Palestinian officials, academics, journalists, elected officials, hearing from speakers representing diverse views across the political spectrum, and get a personal, firsthand view of issues of great importance to American policy in the Middle East.”
I have reviewed the itinerary of a Democratic junket hosted by the National Jewish Democratic Coalition and the AJC. What tour participants wrote about their experiences there indicate that they went through their visit wearing rose colored glasses. Here’s Howard Dean:
“I met with former Prime Ministers Shimon Peres and Benjamin Netanyahu, both of whom are key political actors today; and while they disagree vehemently on pressing issues, they do not challenge each other’s patriotism.”
Bibi Netanyahu does nothing BUT question the patriotism of his political opponents including Shimon Peres.
Steve Grossman, when he toured the Separation Wall (which he euphemistically calls, using Aipac’s precise formulation, “the security fence”), appears to have been somewhere south of cloud cuckoo land:
We toured the security fence by Kalkilya, where the architect responsible for locating the fence demonstrated the difficult balance that Israel seeks to maintain: dramatically reducing the threat to Israeli civilians from terrorists while minimizing the impact on the Palestinian community.”
Why certainly that little fence has only one purpose and that is to keep out those nasty Palestinian terrorists. And it couldn’t possibly have any other purpose like expropriating huge chunks of Palestinian land. That’s just nasty ol’ stuff and Israel wouldn’t have anything to do with something like that.
The Arizona Democratic Party chair had this to say about Israel’s army service:
“I have observed that even though Israel has a draft, people accept their responsibility to serve their nation willingly and seriously.”
First, I’ve never heard Israel’s army service referred to as a draft. It certainly isn’t in the traditional U.S. sense. Israel has compulsory military service. Compulsory, that is, for everyone but Orthodox yeshiva students who somehow are excused from military service possibly because their prayers are considered extra holy and the IDF needs all the prayers it can get. That was meant facetiously. But the point is that not every Israeli “accepts their responsibility to serve their nation willingly and seriously.” If Aipac had really been educating these people about Israel as it really is, then the speaker would’ve known his statement was false on its face.
Finally, the tour itinerary notes that it held its first Shabbat dinner at Rabbi Daniel Gordis‘ home. Gordis holds harsh anti-Palestinian views advocating a military solution to the conflict. His site currently features a glowing review by uber-Israel booster, Alan Dershowitz, of Gordis’ latest book. Gordis’ political views of course fit perfectly with the Aipac agenda, but certainly do not reflect the majority of Israeli and American Jewish opinion as demonstrated in recent surveys.
Though apparently NJDC tour participants met with Palestinians, the group would not admit this in its public statements about the trip. They met with Likud and Kadima politicians, but no one (as far as their public statements about the trip schedule) from Labor and certainly no one from Meretz or any Israeli Arab party. They met with no dovish analysts of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And this junket was hosted for DEMOCRATS. You can imagine how even farther right Aipac would slant a junket that included Congressional Republicans.
I’m not saying I’ve seen the itineraries for every Aipac junket. Perhaps a few might’ve scheduled meetings that included progressive voices, Israeli Arabs or Palestinians. But I’d be willing to bet Bush’s ranch (I’d bet my own but I don’t have one) that such meetings would be the exception rather than the rule.
So what you have is a megalobby pretending that it speaks with one voice on behalf of the American Jewish community regarding Israel; but which actually does a deep disservice both to that community and Israel by its narrow-gauge political advocacy. Now, in addition to representing Israel’s interests here so poorly, Aipac wishes to throw a wrench in the gears of Democratic good government initiatives before the new Congress. Way to go, Aipac!
Why should U.S. taxpayers fund slanted junkets to Israel which present a thoroughly one-sided rightist perspective on the conflict? It’s no wonder when these same legislators return to the halls of Congress they refuse to question anything that Aipac does AND cooperate in or even initiate questionable activities of the type alleged of Jane Harman, who stands accused of dragooning Aipac donors into intervening on her behalf in order to save her chairmanship of the House Intelligence Committee.
House Democrats will be under enormous pressure not only from Aipac, but from every other lobbying interest, not to do away with Congressional junkets. Even House members in their heart of hearts probably want to retain them. We’ll see how much spine the newly majority Democrats have and just how much residual power Aipac has retained, when we find out what the reform legislation will look like. My bet is on a reversion to form–Aipac wins, the taxpayer loses.
I asked a former Aipac staffer (who shall remain nameless since he still works in this milieu) who knows their junket trips inside and out about his “take” on them. Clearly this individual no longer holds Aipac in high regard. But this is what he had to say after reading this post:
You have it exactly right. These AIPAC trips are the grownup version of Birthright. All propaganda, all the time.
Hat tip to TPM.