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A glance at the congressmen’s agenda for the tour, provided to the Forward by the organizers, sheds light on the content injected into these junkets. In an event-packed six-day excursion, lawmakers met with Israel’s president, prime minister and opposition leader. They received briefings from top military brass and were taken on tours of the country’s borders, emphasizing what the itinerary described as “strategic” lessons and briefings. Organizers made sure to include a meeting with Salam Fayyad, prime minister of the Palestinian Authority, which exercises limited rule over parts of the Israeli-occupied West Bank.
Congress reformed rules governing such privately sponsored trips for members in 2007. The new regulations require advance approval of a trip by the House Committee on Ethics and a full report on expenses once the trip is completed. It forbids participating in trips that lobby organizations are sponsoring to limit their undue influence on lawmakers. But the rules allow for trips to be paid for by charitable organizations, such as AIEF, even if they are closely affiliated with a lobbying group, as AIEF is with AIPAC.
AIEF was set up in 1990 as an organization that is separate yet affiliated with AIPAC. Founded as a tax-exempt and tax-deductible public charity according to provision 501(c)(3) of America’s tax code, AIEF draws its top management and board members from those who run AIPAC. The group also gets the lion’s share of its funding in the form of a grant from AIPAC. Yet, AIEF itself is not a lobbying organization and as such is allowed to sponsor tours for members of Congress, in accordance with congressional ethics rules. In 2009, AIEF raised more than $26 million and used the funds for educational programs and for funding travel to Israel.
AIEF is the largest sponsor anywhere of congressional travel, spending more than $1 million a year to send representatives and their staff members to Israel, according to disclosure forms filed with the House Ethics Committee. Most travel is scheduled for odd years, when members are not busy with their re-election campaigns. Last summer, 81 House members traveled to Israel in August. AIEF’s average cost for sending a member of Congress to Israel is about $10,000.
Patrick Dorton, an AIEF spokesman (who has also functioned as a spokesman for AIPAC), stressed that AIEF submits “extensive, detailed and individualized information to the Ethics Committee for each participant” that goes on its Israel trips. The trips themselves, he said, “are intensely substantive and filled from morning until evening with educational discussions and meeting with government officials that offer an in-depth perspective into Israel’s foreign policy, regional threats, national security, history and culture.”
Other Jewish organizations, including the American Jewish Committee and various local Jewish community relations committees, take national and local politicians on trips to Israel, as well. But they are not defined as lobbying groups. J Street, the more dovish Israel lobby group, set up its own educational sister organization this year that also sponsors visits to Israel.