For Aipac, Congressional Trips Are Effective Way to Boost Israel

The next time Rep. Jim Langevin steps into the U.S. House of Representatives to vote on a matter concerning Israel, no background briefing will be as valuable as what he experienced earlier this month.

Visiting Israeli towns that border the West Bank, the second-term Democrat from Rhode Island said he saw for himself how the controversial security fence Israel is building will prevent suicide bombers and other terrorists from entering Israel, making the country safer.

The trip gave him a new appreciation of Israel’s commitment to putting security first and foremost, he said.

“It gave me a better understanding of why things like the fence are necessary — and a rational response to the terrorist threats Israel faces,” Langevin told JTA.

Even without the visit, he probably would have voted for pro-Israel measures, Langevin said, but now he is more sympathetic to Israel’s plight.

“I will forever feel a closeness to Israel, having been there and seen the challenges they face on a day-to-day basis,” he said.

That’s just what the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the main pro-Israel lobby in Washington, likes to hear.

Through its affiliate organization, the American Israel Education Foundation, AIPAC sent Langevin and 28 other congressional Democrats on a one-week trip to Israel earlier this month, the largest congressional contingent ever to visit the Jewish state. Next week it plans to send 19 Republicans on a similar tour.

AIPAC officials say optimism over the “road map” peace plan, coupled with a somewhat reduced threat of violence, has made Israel a top destination for lawmakers this summer.

The trips also give representatives an opportunity to show their support for Israel — which can be critical to winning political backing from Jews and conservative Christians — ahead of elections.

Critics argue that the AIPAC trips present a monolithic view and don’t show all sides of the complex Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“AIPAC is sophisticated enough to know that I am sophisticated enough to know there is more than one side to every story,” he said, pointing out that he was free to ask probing questions.

AIPAC spokeswoman Rebecca Dinar said the organization tries to show all sides of the issues, noting that the Democratic group met not only with officials of the Israeli government but also with Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas and Labor Party leader Shimon Peres.

AIPAC and AIEF play no official role in the taxpayer-funded trips, but their staff and lay leaders often advise lawmakers on where to go and whom to see.

Most of the lawmakers meet with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Abbas. They tour hospitals, kibbutzim and the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial. They also learn the latest tools and tactics Israel is using for homeland security.

AIPAC’s goal is to give lawmakers a first-hand understanding that support for Israel should be the cornerstone of U.S. policy in the Middle East, and that Israel needs American economic and military support.

Most agree that the strategy has worked: Over the years, lawmakers and their staffers have returned from such trips more interested in the Middle East, more likely to vote for aid to Israel and more likely to back AIPAC on other matters concerning the Jewish state.

Lawmakers get more than an expense-paid week in the Middle East: They get to vocalize their support for Israel as elections approach, helping them tap into the wealth of pro-Israel Jewish money that AIPAC has access to, even though AIPAC doesn’t endorse specific candidates.

That’s especially important for Democrats this year, as pro-Israel sentiments from President Bush and Republican leaders like DeLay appear to have led to increased Jewish contributions to Republican candidates.

Doug Bloomfield, a former legislative director for AIPAC, says he has seen lawmakers who previously had shown little interest in the Middle East become real leaders on Middle East policy after visiting Israel.

The trips “are consistently valuable,” he said. “I can’t think of a single instance in which someone came back with a less favorable impression of Israel.”

But a 1985 trip to the Jewish state changed his perspective. Afterward, Helms consistently supported Israel in Congress, voting in 1995 to move the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and chastising President Bill Clinton a year later for criticizing Israeli settlements.

The impact of such trips can be almost immediate: When the Bush administration suggested earlier this month that money used for Israel’s security fence should be deducted from the $8 billion in loan guarantees Israel is to receive from the United States, the Democrat delegation visiting Israel fired back.

Case, whose Hawaii district does not include many Jews, said the most valuable aspect of the trip was that it gave lawmakers a week to focus on a single issue.

“When we go to Israel, we sit there and we’re absorbed,” he said in an interview. “We’re not thinking about whether we should protect a dam in the Northwest or whether we should have prescription drug coverage in Medicare. We’re thinking about Israel.”

Such trips are not cheap. Congressional expenditure reports estimate that a one-week trip to Israel costs AIPAC’s foundation $5,000 per person. Many of the lawmakers bring spouses and a key staffer.

Some say they don’t think the pro-Israel statements lawmakers generally make on such trips necessarily reflect their true feelings on AIPAC’s key issues.

One official for a dovish Jewish group said lawmakers say what AIPAC wants to hear if they think it will attract Jewish donors.

“This is a totally cynical effort to get over there a year before the election, and despite what they think in their hearts say what American Jewish contributors want to hear,” the official said.

Dinar did not address these charges, saying, “Members of Congress go on AIEF trips to Israel because they want to see for themselves why the U.S.-Israel relationship is the cornerstone of the Middle East.”

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