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.

Debbie Hill/UPI/Newscom/File
US House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, (D-MD) speaks at a press conference in the King David Hotel in Jerusalem, on August 10, 2011.

Back in May, Congress lavished 29 standing ovations on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in a resounding demonstration of solidarity just days after a very public clash between the Israeli leader and President Obama.

There’s been a follow-up act this month: a record delegation of 81 US representatives to Israel. The virtual airlift of more than a fifth of the House, funded by affiliates of America's powerful Israeli lobby, is seen as a circling of the wagons just weeks before an expected Palestinian statehood vote at the United Nations.

With Israel facing the potential of increased isolation from the UN move, the congressional show of force sends a clear message to the White House to stand by the Jewish state. It also sends a warning to Palestinian officials that Congress will cut off hundreds of millions in annual aid if they follow through with plans for a unilateral declaration of statehood backed by the UN, analysts say.

"It's like coming here on the eve of the [1967] Six-Day War. Israel is isolated and under diplomatic threat," says Akiva Eldar, a diplomatic columnist for the liberal Haaretz daily newspaper. "[Netanyahu] wants to send a clear message: 'Don’t mess around with me. Congress is with me on both sides of the aisle.' "

Making a case for $3 billion in aid during austere times

The visit is funded as an educational trip by the American Israel Education Foundation – a group affiliated with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC).

While such visits are routine, the unusual size of this year's delegation reflects several factors ranging from the UN vote and rising criticism of White House policy toward Israel, to the bumper crop of freshman representatives who don't have to spend the summer campaigning for reelection. AIPAC wants to use the visit to make the case to newcomers for continued US foreign aid of about $3 billion at a time of fiscal austerity.

"The question isn’t so much going away with a different attitude, it's going away with more information," says David Kreizelman, who heads AIPAC’s office in Israel. "They have to go back to their constituents who are saying, 'We want [government help] and you are voting to give money to Israel.' "

AIPAC has arranged meetings with Israeli politicians ranging from Mr. Netanyahu to opposition leader Tzipi Livni to parliament members who are die-hard supporters of the Jewish settlers in the West Bank. Like many foreign dignitaries, representatives visit the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial, are hosted at residence of President Shimon Peres, and are bused to southern Israeli towns that have been hit by rockets launched from the Gaza Strip.

US lawmakers threaten to withhold aid to Palestinians

They also paid visits to Palestinian leaders in Ramallah to hear their perspective. But during those conversations, US congressmen have been making it clear that the Palestinian Authority is jeopardizing donor support from the US with its UN statehood initiative.

"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."

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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