Following the lead of his boss, a staffer for freshman Democratic congressman Juan Vargas has jetted off to Israel, courtesy of the American Israel Education Foundation, a project of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, or AIPAC for short, which styles itself as “America’s pro-Israel lobby.” Vargas and his wife made the journey last summer, from August 4 through 13, getting put up at such five-star hostelries as the King David Hotel in Jerusalem and the Scots Hotel in Tiberias. Along the way, they hooked up with Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority, according to an itinerary filed with the House ethics committee. Total cost to the foundation for the couple’s jaunt: $16,230.
The same outfit funded the two-week trip of Aaron Allen, a foreign affairs legislative assistant to Vargas, who departed Washington December 14 and returned on December 28. According to his disclosure form, Allen paid for the part of his trip between December 24 and December 27. The total tab picked up by the foundation was $5868.61. As justification for the gift, Allen wrote, “This trip will be an opportunity to expand my understanding of the U.S.-Israeli relationship.” After checking in to the Tel Aviv Sheraton, Allen’s congressional tour group had a “dinner and discussion with Nadav Perry, Reporter, Channel 10.” The next day it was on to a tour of the Knesset and dinner with Israeli high-tech types. A visit to the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum and a “Palestinian Perspective” session with Issa Kassisseh of the Palestinian Negotiations Support Unit was also on the agenda. Later, it was off to the Gaza Strip and briefings on “Israel’s Missile Defense System,” “Regional Threats Overview,” “Strategic Threats at the Lebanese and Syrian Borders,” and “The Iranian Threat.” Scenic side trips included the National Archeological Park at Masada and “Exploration of the Dead Sea region.”
According to a report last week by the National Journal, Israel is by the far the top destination for congressional free junkets of both parties, with a total of $1,940,000 in 142 trips in 2013. Turkey, a big favorite destination of onetime Democratic congressman and Vargas predecessor Bob Filner, was a distant second with $640,000, representing 87 trips. India was behind that at $396,000, with 31 trips.
“Today, a wide network of nonprofits — many with a clear agenda and some with excruciatingly tight ties to Washington’s biggest lobbying operations — are putting together international congressional excursions,” the report observes. Freshmen members and their staffs are particular targets for the Israelis, according to the report, and spouses are encouraged to come along. “South Carolina’s Mark Sanford, who returned to the House in 2013 after an extramarital affair led to scandal during his term as governor, received a special ethics waiver to take along his mistress-turned-fiancée.”