SIOUX FALL, S.D. — 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."
These trips are defended as "educational." In reality, as I know from my many colleagues in the House and Senate who participated in them, they offer Israeli propagandists an opportunity to expose members of Congress to only their side of the story. The Israeli narrative of how the nation was created, and Israeli justifications for its brutal policies omit important truths about the Israeli takeover and occupation of the Palestinian territories.
What the pro-Israel lobby reaps for its investment in these tours is congressional support for Israeli desires. For years, Israel has relied on billions of dollars in US taxpayer money. Shutting off this government funding would seriously impair Israel's harsh occupation.
One wonders what policies Congress might support toward Israel and the Palestinians absent the distorting influence of these Israel trips – or if more members toured Palestinian lands. America sent troops to Europe to prevent the killing of civilians in the former Yugoslavia. But when it comes to flagrant human rights violations committed by Israel, the US sends more money and shields Israel from criticism.
Congress regularly passes resolutions lauding Israel, even when its actions are deplorable, providing it political cover. Meanwhile, polls suggest most Americans want the Bush administration to steer a middle course in working for peace between Israelis and the Palestinians.
Consider, too, how the Israel lobby twists US foreign policy into a dangerous double standard regarding nuclear issues. The US rattles its sabers at Iran for its nuclear energy ambitions – and alleged pursuit of nuclear arms – while remaining silent about Israel's nuclear-weapons arsenal.
Members of Congress may not be aware just how damaging their automatic support for Israel is to America's interest. At a minimum, US policies toward Israel have cost it valuable allies in the Middle East and other parts of the Muslim world.
If Congress is serious about ethics reform, it should not protect the Israel lobby from the consequences. A totally taxpayer-funded travel budget for members to take foreign fact-finding trips, with authorization to be made by committee heads, would be an important first step toward a foreign policy that genuinely serves America.
• Jim Abourezk is a former Democratic senator from South Dakota.