Date: Fri, 26 Jan 2007 18:41:50 -0500 (EST)
From: Council for the National Interest Foundation
This opinion piece is by CNI Vice Chairman Jim Abourezk and appears in
the January 26, 2007, edition of the Christian Science Monitor.
The hidden cost of free congressional trips to Israel
Branded as 'educational,' these trips offer Israeli propagandists an
opportunity to expose members of Congress to only their side of the
By Jim Abourezk
SIOUX FALL, S.D.
Democrats in Congress have moved quickly - and commendably - to
strengthen ethics rules. But truly groundbreaking reform was prevented,
in part, because of the efforts of the pro-Israel lobby to preserve one
of its most critical functions: taking members of Congress on free
"educational" trips to Israel.
The pro-Israel lobby does most of its work without publicity. But every
member of Congress and every would-be candidate for Congress comes to
quickly understand a basic lesson. Money needed to run for office can
come with great ease from supporters of Israel, provided that the
candidate makes certain promises, in writing, to vote favorably on
issues considered important to Israel. What drives much of congressional
support for Israel is fear - fear that the pro-Israel lobby will either
withhold campaign contributions or give money to one's opponent.
In my own experience as a US senator in the 1970s, I saw how the lobby
tries to humiliate or embarrass members who do not toe the line.
Pro-Israel groups worked vigorously to ensure that the new reforms would
allow them to keep hosting members of Congress on trips to Israel.
According to the Jewish Daily Forward newspaper, congressional filings
show Israel as the top foreign destination for privately sponsored
trips. Nearly 10 percent of overseas congressional trips taken between
2000 and 2005 were to Israel. Most are paid for by the American Israel
Education Foundation, a sister organization of the American Israel
Public Affairs Committee, the major pro-Israel lobby group.
New rules require all trips to be pre-approved by the House Ethics
Committee, but Rep. Barney Frank (D) of Massachusetts says this setup
will guarantee that tours of Israel continue. Ron Kampeas of the Jewish
Telegraphic Agency reported consensus among Jewish groups that "the new
legislation would be an inconvenience, but wouldn't seriously hamper the
trips to Israel that are considered a critical component of
congressional support for Israel."
These trips are defended as "educational." In reality, as I know from my
many colleagues in the House and Senate who participated in them, they
offer Israeli propagandists an opportunity to expose members of Congress
to only their side of the story. The Israeli narrative of how the nation
was created, and Israeli justifications for its brutal policies omit
important truths about the Israeli takeover and occupation of the
What the pro-Israel lobby reaps for its investment in these tours is
congressional support for Israeli desires. For years, Israel has relied
on billions of dollars in US taxpayer money. Shutting off this
government funding would seriously impair Israel's harsh occupation.
One wonders what policies Congress might support toward Israel and the
Palestinians absent the distorting influence of these Israel trips - or
if more members toured Palestinian lands. America sent troops to Europe
to prevent the killing of civilians in the former Yugoslavia. But when
it comes to flagrant human rights violations committed by Israel, the US
sends more money and shields Israel from criticism.
Congress regularly passes resolutions lauding Israel, even when its
actions are deplorable, providing it political cover. Meanwhile, polls
suggest most Americans want the Bush administration to steer a middle
course in working for peace between Israelis and the Palestinians.
Consider, too, how the Israel lobby twists US foreign policy into a
dangerous double standard regarding nuclear issues. The US rattles its
sabers at Iran for its nuclear energy ambitions - and alleged pursuit of
nuclear arms - while remaining silent about Israel's nuclear-weapons
Members of Congress may not be aware just how damaging their automatic
support for Israel is to America's interest. At a minimum, US policies
toward Israel have cost it valuable allies in the Middle East and other
parts of the Muslim world.
If Congress is serious about ethics reform, it should not protect the
Israel lobby from the consequences. A totally taxpayer-funded travel
budget for members to take foreign fact-finding trips, with
authorization to be made by committee heads, would be an important first
step toward a foreign policy that genuinely serves America.
/Jim Abourezk is a former Democratic senator from South Dakota and the
vice chairman of the Council for the National Interest. /
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