As the U.S. prepares to cut government spending following a dramatic political battle in Washington, Israel is preparing to welcome 81 members of Congress for a weeklong visit sponsored by the American Israel Education Fund, a non-profit affiliate of the politically powerful American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC).
AIPAC, a pro-Israeli lobbying group in the U.S., wields a tremendous amount of influence over U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East and regularly sponsors trips to Israel for U.S. Congress Members.
Throughout the month of August, 55 Republicans and 26 Democrats will meet with government officials from both Israel and the Palestinian Authority including, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Israeli President Shimon Peres, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad.
The tour will also take Congress members to visit historical sites around the region. No plans were reported to visit the demolition sites of Palestinian homes or the 700 military checkpoints and roadblocks U.S. tax dollars help to support in the West Bank. Forty-seven of the Republicans making up the group are freshman and many will be visiting Israel for the first time.
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor stated, â€śI am pleased to be bringing so many of our new Members of Congress to Israelâ€¦The United States and Israel share similar core values of democracy, human rights and a strong national defense. These shared values contribute to our strong relationship and allow our two countries to work closely together to protect the interests and security of both of our nations. By visiting Israel in-person, Members will better understand the importance of the U.S.-Israel relationship and our role in promoting stability in this critical region.â€ť
According to a recent press release, â€śNo [U.S.] tax dollars will be used to pay for the trip as it is paid for by the AIEF, which is privately funded by donations from American citizens.â€ť Itâ€™s estimated that between 2000-2005, The American Israel Education Foundation spent more than $950,000 on congressional travel.
AIPAC lobbies hard to ensure that Israel is kept on the U.S. dole, with three billion dollars a year going to the Israeli military. Despite the frazzled state of the U.S. economy, itâ€™s estimated that Israel receives over $8 million per day. With the September Palestinian UN initiatives on the horizon and an economically stricken U.S. desperately juggling finances, Israel is concerned about any shifts in the political and economic priorities of its U.S. ally.
However Representative Steny Hoyer (Democrat, Maryland) has reassured Israelis that financial challenges â€świll not have any adverse effect on Americaâ€™s determination to meet its promise to Israel.â€ť
The Israeli government, which has just announced the expansion of Ramat Shlomo and Har Homa settlements in East Jerusalem, met with stern reprove from the U.S., the UN, and the EU, which said such actions would further undermine the peace process. However the U.S. does not appear intent on revoking any of the military aid it currently pours into Israelâ€™s coffers. Instead the U.S. is threatening Palestinians severe reductions in aid if they pursue their intention to appeal to the UN for statehood and membership in September.
Members of Congress participating in the AIPAC sponsored tour have come under fire from activists who accuse American politicians of turning a blind eye to illegal Israeli activity in the Palestinian territory. Though major U.S. media outlets have largely ignored the upcoming visit, leaving many Americans unaware of the situation, some U.S. citizens complain that following a congressional battle, which sparked concerns of a double dip recession, Congress members should be focused on U.S. domestic policy.
Medea Benjamin, co-founder of the Washington-based anti-war organization Code Pink, commented â€śIt is outrageous that 81 members of the Congress instead of being back in their districts talking to their constituents about the economic crisis and what they're going to do to find a solution are instead going to Israel on a junket that is paid for by the pro-Israel lobby group AIPAC.â€ť
Reports circulating from representative staff members indicate that though some Congress members have expressed reserves about participating, they feel AIPAC is too powerful to ignore and doing so could target them for removal.
The first group of 26 Democrats is scheduled to arrive in Israel on Monday.
Both Code Pink and the U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation have issued statements requesting U.S. citizens to call their representatives to find out if they will be participating in this trip and request that they refrain from doing so.