Tuesday, February 20, 2007

A Loophole You Could Fly an El Al 747 Through

Buried in this story about last month's Senate ethics reform package was this paragrpah about a rather large loophole that seemed tailor-made for a particular constituency:

Lobbyists for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, or AIPAC, also talked to lawmakers about excluding from the measure's travel ban trips to Israel sponsored by the group's nonprofit foundation affiliate. The legislation, as written, would allow those trips to continue.

The non-profit affiliate in this case is the American Israel Education Foundation, which functions effectively as the travel arm of AIPAC, and is the third largest private sponsor of congressional travel. Among the spendiest, AIEF is the only organization which is specifically foreign policy-focused.

The alarms that sound among pro-Israel groups whenever this sort of legislation is considered reveals their belief these trips are highly effective in instilling and strengthening pro-Israel views in legislators and staffers, many of whom know little about Middle East issues before taking the sponsored visits. Matthew Berger in the Jewish News Weekly:
Jewish groups have used trips to Israel as a key tool to help lawmakers understand the significance of the Jewish state and its need for political support. Such trips have helped sensitize lawmakers to Israeli concerns.

For example, President Bush was said to have been deeply moved during a 1998 trip to Israel as governor of Texas. He formed strong ties with future Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon on the visit, paid for by the Republican Jewish Coalition.

AIPAC has sent numerous lawmakers to Israel over the years through the American Israel Education Foundation. These trips often include extensive travel in Israel and meetings with key political leaders. The trips have been credited with helping lawmakers see controversial topics such as the West Bank security barrier and the Gaza Strip withdrawal in a light favorable to Israel.

In response to the loophole, former South Dakota Senator Jim Aboureszk wrote in the Christian Science Monitor:
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 Palestinian territories.

That last bit is important. People on these trips aren’t given anything close to a “balanced view,” in fact they’re exposed to the worst sort of revisionist nonsense. (“There’s no such thing as a Palestinian. And anyway, they don’t eat pizza like you and me. Would you like to visit a Sbarro?”) They certainly aren’t shown the Palestinian refugee camps. They're kept safely away from the military checkpoints where teenage Israeli troops keep Palestinians waiting in lines for hours because they think it’s funny. They don't see Jewish settler children, under the protection of Israeli troops, chanting racist slogans and throwing stones at Palestinian women and children on their way to school. And they sure as hell never see the Palestinian homes, schools, gardens, olive groves, and playgrounds which have been razed to make room for new, illegal settlements on expropriated Palestinian land.

These trips aren’t just for the members of Congress, of course. Last summer, National Review's Rich Lowry and Slate's Jacob Weisberg both took AIEF-sponsored trips to Israel, returning as little more than stenographers, dutifully typing out Israeli talking points.

It’s possible that the kind of people who are taken in by the constant Israeli propaganda featured on these trips were inclined in that direction to begin with (Though, of course, one of AIPAC’s goals is to ensure that those are the only kind of people in Congress.) Given AIPAC’s strenuous efforts in support of the non-profit sponsored travel loophole, it’s obvious that AIPAC considers these trips effective tools for achieving their policy goals. That they were able to carve out such an exemption speaks for itself.