JERUSALEM — When members of Congress returned to their offices this week and were asked what they did on their summer vacation, a record number had a shared answer: I went to Israel.
House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, a Texas Republican, made headlines for a strongly pro-Israel speech he gave to the Knesset at the end of July. A bipartisan delegation of lawmakers led by Senator John McCain, an Arizona Republican, went in August as part of a fact-finding trip that also took them to Iraq. A group led by the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York included three New York congressmen, Eliot Engel, Gregory Meeks and Anthony Weiner. Two partisan trips were sponsored by the American Israel Education Foundation, the nonprofit educational arm of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, which pays out some $5,000 for each participant.
Aipac has been bringing congressional delegations for more than 20 years, but none larger than the 30 Democrats who came in early August, led by Rep. Steny Hoyer of Maryland, the House Democratic whip. That delegation was followed two weeks later by a Republican one, 19 representatives led by Tom Reynolds of New York and Eric Cantor of Virginia. All told, more than 100 members of Congress — almost one-fifth the total — have visited Israel this year.
The trips included a rigorous schedule of briefings with top Israeli and Palestinian government officials, from prime ministers Ariel Sharon and Mahmoud Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, on down, as well as Knesset members from both coalition and opposition parties. Participants toured Jewish and Christian holy sites and visited important places of interest, such as the northern border with Lebanon and a Jewish Agency absorption center for Ethiopian immigrants.
Some critics charge that the congressional delegates get a skewed view of the political situation because they are being hosted by the conservative Aipac. The Tikkun Community, a left-wing group sponsored by Tikkun magazine, has urged its members via e-mail to contact Congress members who visited Israel in order to “present a different view of the Middle East conflict.”
Wendy Singer, director of Aipac’s Israel office, dismisses such charges. “The reputation of AIEF missions is so solid as being educational trips where members of Congress are exposed to all sides of the political spectrum,” she said. “Our philosophy is to let the story of Israel tell itself, and it does. Therefore, the whole tone of the mission is educational and analytical, rather than lobbying-oriented.”
Many members of Congress who came seemed reluctant to speak out on issues. Some, for example, were hesitant to say anything that did not conform to the policy of President Bush.
But some Republicans were willing to speak out on the controversial issue of the security fence, as well as on the State Department’s reported plan to penalize Israel for building the barrier by deducting an equal amount from the $9 billion in loan guarantees.
McCain said he backed the idea of the fence, a position at odds with the Bush administration as well as Palestinians, who object to the barrier that they say cuts across farmlands and separates Palestinians from their communities. McCain also said he would oppose penalizing Israel for building the fence.
Many Democrats also spoke out. Hoyer said the fence makes sense for Israel and would promote peace. “The fence is a rational response to securing safety, and in my opinion — to the extent that it stops terrorist acts from occurring — it will further the peace process, because terrorist acts will inevitably undermine the peace process.”
Rep. Dennis Cardoza, a California Democrat, said he supports the fence. “One of the things we have to do is decrease the violence, to find a way to rebuild the credibility,” he said. “In places where the fence is up, around Gaza, you see less terrorist activity. The Israeli people deserve to have a sense of control over their destiny much greater than they do today, when people can walk across a field and commit a suicide bombing. We have a fence across many parts of our border.”
Moreover, Cardoza said, “fences and walls can be torn down, when countries agree they can be torn down. Things can be renegotiated.”
Many of Cardoza’s fellow congressmen described their trips to Israel as eye-opening experiences that will help them make better decisions upon returning to Washington. “This is a trip that I have always wanted to take,” said Rep. Jeff Miller, a Republican from Florida. “But as a member of the House Armed Services Committee, it is one that I felt was necessary to gain a better understanding of the geographical constraints and the current military situation.”
Rep. Joe Wilson, a Republican from South Carolina, said he was learning the differences between Hezbollah, Hamas and Islamic Jihad, and the distinction within Hamas between the group’s terrorist wing and its charitable wing.
“What in particular was interesting to me to find out was that the Palestinian Authority does not have control over its security forces,” Wilson said, “that indeed Yasser Arafat still controls the security forces, which then puts the prime minister in an awkward position.”
These meetings with the prime minister are not seen as frivolous photo-ops, but as a perfect opportunity to forge stronger relations with members of Congress, where Israel’s strongest allies sit.
Bobby Brown, who was in charge of Diaspora affairs under former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, remembers how seriously he would take these meetings. “Bibi viewed them as extremely important,” Brown said. “He considered [them] as strategically important as almost any other area of effort on behalf of the State of Israel.”
Moreover, Brown said, it was not always the congressional leaders learning about Israel. One time a governor told Netanyahu how his state had privatized everything, including prisons. “Bibi was absolutely fascinated with the idea that government could sub-contract out various governmental duties. I don’t think anyone felt like student to teacher. It was more like a meetings of the minds, and a meeting of friends discussing how they could help each over periods of difficulties and crises.”