Well, we all know that most members of the US Congress ‘heart’ Israel a lot… But that very intimate relationship has been sustained over the years by many, lovingly arranged trips that pro-Israeli organizations in the US have organized that have sent members of both the House and Sentae, and key staffers, on “fact-finding” trips to Israel that show a decidedly one-sided view of developments in the Israeli-Arab region.
On Monday, the NYT published a fairly good analysis of the overseas trips taken by members of Congress in the period since 2007, when new rules intended to rein in “junketing”, i.e. recreational use of allegedly fact-finding missions, came into operation.
Accompanying the article was this helpful graphic, that shows that while the policy-focused Aspen Institute was the largest sponsor of congressional “fact-finding” travel– both domestic and international– in the years since 2007, the second largest sponsor was the American Israel Education Foundation, which sponsored trips by a total of 88 members of Congress at a listed cost of $1.4 million.
A little more digging on the excellent and informative Legistorm website reveals that in the period between January 2000 and mid-August 2009 that the site tracks, AIEF has sponsored 457 trips by members of Congress or their staffers. 225 of these were approved by Republicans, and 233 by Democrats.
A first glance down the detailed listings they have there indicates that the vast majority of these trips were made by members themselves. Typically the only destination listed is either “Tel Aviv, Israel”, or “Israel”, and the purpose is described as something like “Meetings with officials and professionals to learn about existing and future challenges in Israel and the Middle East, as well as understand U.S.-Israeli cooperative efforts.”
In a small number of cases, the description includes a note of the fact that the trip also included meetings with Palestinian officials.
AIEF is very far from being the only US organization that organizes visits to Israel for members of Congress and their staffers. Several of the other organizations listed on this portal page, or this one, take their congressional “guests” to Israel, too.
Israel, indeed, seems to be far and away the preferred destination for members of Congress and their staffers as they take their all-expenses paid trips overseas. A total of 867 congressional travelers went to Israel in the period since January 2000– while only 674 went to China, and 292 to the seat of the EU, in Belgium.
Population of Israel: about 7.2 million. Population of China: 1.3 billion. Population of the EU: 500 million.
AIEF does not seem to have its own website whereby it might describe itself to the world. But you can see its relationship to AIPAC from the information that AIPAC gives on the “planned giving” page of its website, which tells us:
Choosing how to put your gift to work
Non-charitable bequests made directly to AIPAC can pay for 100% of AIPAC’s lobbying and political expenses into the future…this is the heart of AIPAC’s work and the most valuable gift you can make. Charitable bequests directed to the American Israel Education Foundation, the charitable organization affiliated with AIPAC, can secure AIPAC’s vital educational work.
The very handy website Charity Navigator gives us a bit more information about AIEF. In FY2008 it had functional expenses of $25.8 million. Its executive director received compensation of just over $400,000– from unspecified “affiliates”, quite possibly AIPAC. Two other staff members were each paid more than $100,000.
Here is the mission statement listed there:
Founded in 1989, The American Israel Education Foundation (AIEF) is an organization established to maintain and further the understanding of the issues affecting relations between the United States and Israel through information and education provided to public and private parties interested in such relations. Programs include educational programs such as policy conferences, internships, campus newsletters and other materials; educational travel programs to Israel; and funding publications of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, Near East Research, and Global Leadership Institute for Public Affairs.
At the bottom of that page, there’s a helpful list of other “charities” that do similar work.
My experience is that members of Congress and their staffs are far from the only decisionmakers in the US who are beneficiaries of these all-expenses-paid, overseas-travel opportunities that are provided by (tax-exempt) pro-Israeli organizations. AIEF, AIPAC, the Jewish Community Relations Councils, and other pro-Israel groups work hard to identify up-and-coming politicians very early in their careers. They take them on trips, and then continue to work at building those (strongly pro-Israel) “relationships” for as long as it takes for the person in question to become a national-level decisionmaker.
A coupe of years ago, I got a phone call from my local State Senator in Virginia, Creigh Deeds, a relatively unknown state-level legislator who said he was planning to run for Governor, and could I make a donation? Creigh had evidently heard from other Virginia political figures to whom I’d made non-trivial donations (that would be you, Tom Perriello) that I was interested in the Middle East. So on the phone there, Creigh started telling me he was just back from a fact-finding trip to the region, which he’d found fascinating… I asked who had sponsored the trip. I know he named one of the strongly pro-Israeli organizations– I believe it was, indeed, AIEF, which is based in Washington DC.
But here’s what I asked myself. At that point even I, a fairly loyal and engaged member of our local political scene, did not know that my State Senator was planning to run for Governor. Had AIEF gotten wind of that plan even before I’d heard about it? Or are AIEF and its “affiliates” so all-embracing in their purview that they take anyone who’s a state legislator to Israel, just on the off-chance that he or she might run for state-wide or national office at some later point?
(By the way, Deeds won the Democratic nomination for the governor’s race– but then lost the election itself. It was quite a setback for the national Democratic Party. But I don’t doubt that the man who beat him, Republican Bob McDonnell, has also been on AIEF’s radar for quite a while.)