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Why one-fifth of US representatives went to Israel this summer

The record delegation of 81 congressmen, whose expenses were paid by an AIPAC affiliate, is seen as a circling of the wagons just weeks ahead of a UN vote on Palestinian statehood.

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"We’ve given a clear communication to Prime Minister [Salam] Fayyed that we thought that it’s a step back ... and is not helpful," says Rep. Tom Price, a fourth-term Republican from Atlanta who spoke by phone en route from the Sea of Galilee to the Israeli-Lebanon border. "There is great sentiment for not continuing the aid, because the vote is so destructive to formulating a bilateral agreement on a peace."

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Palestinian leaders say the congressional support of Israel reflects a bias that has hurt US efforts to mediate the peace process. They were outraged in May by the standing ovations Netanyahu received. Despite that the congressmen got a hearing with top leaders.

"Successive American congresses have always been supportive of Israel. This is a fact of life that we are trying to deal with," says Ghassan Khatib, a spokesman for the Palestinian government. "Palestinians are always motivated to explain their views to visiting delegations, especially American ones."

The Glenn Beck factor

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R) of Virginia and House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D) of Maryland have led two separate waves of representatives, largely split along party lines. A large portion of the participants were freshman Republicans who have never visited the region.

The number of visiting lawmakers is at least double that of similar contingents in the 1990s. Over the years, Israel has become an increasingly frequent stop on the campaign trail for presidential candidates and politicians with hopes of gaining nationwide prominence.

In the special election to replace Rep. Anthony Weiner (D) of New York, Republican candidate Bob Turner has turned pro-Israel credentials into a campaign issue. Republican house members are also paying attention to former Fox News anchor Glenn Beck, who spearheaded a pro-Israel solidarity rally of thousands of US tourists at the foot of Jerusalem’s Temple Mount on Wednesday.

"They can’t help but notice that this is on Glenn Beck’s radar," says Lenny Ben David, a former head of the AIPAC office in Jerusalem and a former Israeli diplomat. The size of the delegation "may reflect that it’s a campaign issue. The race to replace Anthony Weiner is of interest in both parties."

Shmuel Rosner, a fellow at the Jewish People Policy Institute, says congressional support is especially crucial given rocky relations between the Netanyahu and Obama governments. "Since this current Israeli administration and American administration are suspicious of one another, and has a lot of tension, Congress is the institution on which Israel will rely."

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