Tuesday, August 16, 2011

81 Members of Congress Going To Israel On Vacation...The Story From A Few Different Perspectives

Just when you think your contempt for Congress could not get any higher, our elected representatives manage to do something to ratchet it up another notch. After congressional shenanigans helped spark a major market sell-off and sparked fears of a double-dip recession, you'd think every single one of them would be heading back to their districts to figure out what their constituents wanted and to try to explain how they were going to help make things better. Or maybe a few of them would even spend the recess taking a crash course in macroeconomics and public finance, so that they could start exercising their public duties more responsibly.

But what did 81 of them decide to do instead? You guessed it: they are off on junkets to Israel, paid for by the American Israel Education Foundation, an AIPAC spinoff that has been funding such trips for years. That's right: during the August recess nearly a fifth of the U.S. Congress will visit a single country whose entire population is less than that of New York City.  
Such behavior is especially disturbing in light of our current woes; even Greta Van Susteren of Fox News found it appalling (h/t Mondoweiss here and here). But it's not really a new pattern: in recent decades about 10 percent of all Congressional trips overseas have been to Israel, even though it is only one of the nearly 200 countries in the world.

Why do Congresspersons do this, especially at a moment when it is obvious that they ought to be worrying about conditions here at home? Mostly because such junkets burnish a legislator's ‘pro-Israel' credentials and facilitate campaign fundraising. Such trips also expose these visitors to the policy preferences and basic worldview of Israel's leaders, which is of course why AIEF pays for them. 

I suppose I ought to be grateful that AIPAC and its sister organizations continue to work overtime to prove me and my co-author right. But there are bigger issues at stake here, which is why I hope that every one of those eighty-plus Congressmen faces a lot of nasty questions from their constituents upon their return. 
And in a related story, the Israeli government has just announced a new round of settlement building in occupied East Jerusalem. (For apt commentary, see Matt Duss of the Center for American Progress here.) If you've been wondering why most people have lost faith in U.S. stewardship of the peace process and are turning to other strategies--such as the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement or the push for a Palestinian state at the UN --well, I think you have your answer. And if "two states for two peoples" is never achieved and Israel ceases to be either a Jewish majority state or a true democracy, you'll know exactly which misguided or feckless Americans helped bring that about.  

UPDATE:  American taxpayers will be pleased to know that Representative Steny Hoyer (D-Maryland) has reassured Israelis that financial challenges "will not have any adverse effect on America's determination to meet its promise to Israel."  Translation: we may be cutting Medicare and Social Security for U.S. citizens, but Israelis--whose country has the 27th highest per capita income in the world--will continue to get generous subsidies from Uncle Sucker.

August 8, 2011 12:03 AM

Report: 81 congressmen going to Israel on break

Congress using "mini-deal" to delay debt ceiling compromise
Capitol Hill
Perhaps seeking a salty dip in the Dead Sea to end a stressful debt debate, nearly one in five members of the House in Representatives will use their summer recess period to visit Israel, The Jerusalem Post reports.

Of the 81 heading over, 55 are Republicans and 26 are Democrats, The Post reports. Half of the freshmen Republican reps - 47 of them - make up that group, and many of them will be visiting Israel for the first time.

Among the Democrats heading over is Illinois Congressman Jesse Jackson Jr., who will be there for an eight-day visit, the Associated Press reports.

Jackson, like most congressmen on the sponsored trip, is scheduled to meet with both Israeli and Palestinian leaders. The famous civil rights leader's son told the AP that he's looking forward to learning about Israel's business and commercial sectors as well as the latest tools and technology the country is using in its fight against terror.

Almost all of the week-long trips are sponsored by the American Israel Education Foundation, which promotes similar trips for Congress every other August, the Post reports.

House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer will head the Democratic delegation, and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor will lead one of the Republican groups.

American Israel Education Foundation is a supporting organization of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, or AIPAC, which describes itself on its website as "America's leading pro-Israel lobby...AIPAC works with both Democratic and Republican political leaders to enact public policy that strengthens the vital U.S.-Israel relationship."

Kvetching About Congress's Big Trip to Israel

Kvetching About Congress's Big Trip to Israel

John Hudson Aug 08, 2011 1,051 Views Comments (7)
For critics of the Israeli government, news that 20 percent of the U.S. House of Representatives is heading to the Jewish state during the three-week recess is a pretty clear sign that the U.S. does not use an even hand in the Middle East. While many members of Congress scheduled visits to the Palestinian territories as well, the Israel trip is sponsored by the American Israel Education Foundation, a group affiliated with the pro-Israel lobby American Israel Public Affairs Committee. They signed up 55 Republicans and 26 Democrats, with Minority Whip Steny Hoyer leading the Democrats and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor leading a cohort of Republicans. The first group is scheduled to arrive today. The large group of vacationers (The Atlantic's Jeffery Goldberg says the numbers "seem even higher than usual") didn't go unnoticed in the foreign affairs blogosphere.

"Action alert! Call your representative & ask them where they are during recess- in their districts or in #ISRAEL!?" tweeted Medea Benjamin, the co-founder of the anti-war group Code Pink. Not wasting a moment, right-wing firebrand Andrew Breitbart first employed his signature hate retweet and then went straight for the ad hominem attack. "What's not to H8 about sickening Code Pink? Jodie Evans, come clean on how you got & are spending your mega-millions! ... Code Pink... is partially funded by leader Jodie Evans' dead mega-capitalist hubbie!"

Taking a more measured approach, foreign affairs bloggers Jeff Blankfort and Phil Weiss at Mondoweiss employed sarcasm to make a point:
This is just another example of how we are living in inflationary times. In 2009, the year before the last election there were only 55 members of Congress going to Israel during the August recess, 25 Republicans followed by 30 Democrats.  This brings up the old joke: "Why doesn't Israel want to become the 51st state? Because then it would only have two senators."
Margaret O'Brien Steinfels at Commonweal got a little sarcastic herself. "Will they fit in visits to Egypt, Syria, and Yemen, I wonder?" Meanwhile, the pro-Israel blog Israel Matzav, home to an American expat living in Israel was ecstatic. "The Congress is coming, the Congress is coming!" read the headline. Welcome to Israel, folks. And if you want to hear from an American blogger who grew up in Boston and last lived in the US in New Jersey, please send me an email."

U.S. Congress Members Participate in Sponsored Visit to Israel

Sunday, 14 August 2011 13:02 Nikki Hodgson for the Alternative Information Center (AIC)
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As the U.S. prepares to cut government spending following a dramatic political battle in Washington, Israel is preparing to welcome 81 members of Congress for a weeklong visit sponsored by the American Israel Education Fund, a non-profit affiliate of the politically powerful American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC).
AIPAC, a pro-Israeli lobbying group in the U.S., wields a tremendous amount of influence over U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East and regularly sponsors trips to Israel for U.S. Congress Members.

Throughout the month of August, 55 Republicans and 26 Democrats will meet with government officials from both Israel and the Palestinian Authority including, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Israeli President Shimon Peres, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad.

The tour will also take Congress members to visit historical sites around the region. No plans were reported to visit the demolition sites of Palestinian homes or the 700 military checkpoints and roadblocks U.S. tax dollars help to support in the West Bank. Forty-seven of the Republicans making up the group are freshman and many will be visiting Israel for the first time.

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor stated, “I am pleased to be bringing so many of our new Members of Congress to Israel…The United States and Israel share similar core values of democracy, human rights and a strong national defense. These shared values contribute to our strong relationship and allow our two countries to work closely together to protect the interests and security of both of our nations. By visiting Israel in-person, Members will better understand the importance of the U.S.-Israel relationship and our role in promoting stability in this critical region.” 

According to a recent press release, “No [U.S.] tax dollars will be used to pay for the trip as it is paid for by the AIEF, which is privately funded by donations from American citizens.” It’s estimated that between 2000-2005, The American Israel Education Foundation spent more than $950,000 on congressional travel.

AIPAC lobbies hard to ensure that Israel is kept on the U.S. dole, with three billion dollars a year going to the Israeli military. Despite the frazzled state of the U.S. economy, it’s estimated that Israel receives over $8 million per day. With the September Palestinian UN initiatives on the horizon and an economically stricken U.S. desperately juggling finances, Israel is concerned about any shifts in the political and economic priorities of its U.S. ally.

However Representative Steny Hoyer (Democrat, Maryland) has reassured Israelis that financial challenges “will not have any adverse effect on America’s determination to meet its promise to Israel.”

The Israeli government, which has just announced the expansion of Ramat Shlomo and Har Homa settlements in East Jerusalem, met with stern reprove from the U.S., the UN, and the EU, which said such actions would further undermine the peace process. However the U.S. does not appear intent on revoking any of the military aid it currently pours into Israel’s coffers. Instead the U.S. is threatening Palestinians severe reductions in aid if they pursue their intention to appeal to the UN for statehood and membership in September.

Members of Congress participating in the AIPAC sponsored tour have come under fire from activists who accuse American politicians of turning a blind eye to illegal Israeli activity in the Palestinian territory. Though major U.S. media outlets have largely ignored the upcoming visit, leaving many Americans unaware of the situation, some U.S. citizens complain that following a congressional battle, which sparked concerns of a double dip recession, Congress members should be focused on U.S. domestic policy.

Medea Benjamin, co-founder of the Washington-based anti-war organization Code Pink, commented “It is outrageous that 81 members of the Congress instead of being back in their districts talking to their constituents about the economic crisis and what they're going to do to find a solution are instead going to Israel on a junket that is paid for by the pro-Israel lobby group AIPAC.”

Reports circulating from representative staff members indicate that though some Congress members have expressed reserves about participating, they feel AIPAC is too powerful to ignore and doing so could target them for removal.

The first group of 26 Democrats is scheduled to arrive in Israel on Monday.

Both Code Pink and the U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation have issued statements requesting U.S. citizens to call their representatives to find out if they will be participating in this trip and request that they refrain from doing so.

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