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The hidden cost of free congressional trips to Israel

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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."

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