Juan Vargas and Benjamin Netanyahu
Relations between president Barack Obama and prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel haven’t been the best of late, but that hasn’t gotten in the way of some free tripping by two staffers for San Diego Democratic congressmen.
Netanyahu’s March 3 address to the Republican-controlled House of Representatives and the Senate during prime time in Israel is being cited by GOP politicos as a key to his come-from-behind electoral victory this week.
“Most observers agree that his speech here helped his reelection,” Politico quoted Sen. John McCain as saying.
Much of the debate centered on the administration’s proposed nuclear deal with Iran, opposed by Netanyahu and his GOP allies.
“Security trumped domestic issues inside of Israel," South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham concluded. “Anytime you’re talking about the Iranian threat, it’s good for me.”
As they say in politics, timing is everything.
About two weeks before Netanyahu arrived in Washington, a delegation of top congressional staffers touched down in Tel Aviv on a tour paid for by the American Israel Education Foundation, an affiliate of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee — AIPAC for short — which styles itself as "America's pro-Israel lobby."
On the eight-day trip, from February 14 through 22, were Michelle Dorothy, chief of staff for La Jolla Democratic congressman Scott Peters, and Timothy Walsh, who heads the office of border Democrat Juan Vargas.
According to travel disclosure documents, 16 congressional chiefs of staff were invited to review Israeli security, politics, food, and culture. The total tab for Walsh was $11,518; Dorothy's was $11,472.
"I am Chief of Staff to United States Representative Juan Vargas," wrote Walsh on the disclosure form. "This trip will be an opportunity to expand my understanding of the US-Israel relationship and inform my future policy recommendations."
Dorothy's disclosure said: "I am Rep. Peters Chief of Staff. Many of our constituents care about the role the US plays in the Middle East; the more knowledgeable I and the staff are about this, the better able we are to represent them."
The group's first stop in Jerusalem was at Touro, “a Mediterranean kosher meat chef restaurant located in the heart of the picturesque Mishkanot Sha’ananim neighborhood" that boasts "a breathtaking view of the Walls of Jerusalem and the Tower of David," according to the website GoJerusalem.com.
They had dinner there with Matti Friedman, a former Associated Press Jerusalem bureau staffer who has blasted his former employer and other media outlets for alleged bias against the Jewish state, producing "a kind of modern morality play in which the Jews of Israel are displayed more than any other people on earth as examples of moral failure.”
The wire service has denied the charges, saying in news release, “His arguments have been filled with distortions, half-truths and inaccuracies, both about the recent Gaza war and more distant events. His suggestion of AP bias against Israel is false."
Other highlights of the tour included a two-part "strategic survey of Jerusalem," with a look at "Post-1967 Neighborhoods and the Security Barrier."
A "regional threats overview" was held at the upscale La Guta restaurant by controversial former Israeli special forces leader Gal Hirsch.
According to GoJerusalem.com, "La Guta is unique in that on Fridays, the restaurant offers take-out food for the moneyed masses to enjoy on Shabbat."
Before departing for Tel Aviv, it was over to the Crown Plaza hotel for "A View from the Prime Minister's Office" provided by Mark Regev, billed on the itinerary as Netanyahu's "international media advisor."
"A nuclear-armed Iran is not just a threat to Israel, not just a threat to the region, it's a threat to the world," Regev told CNN's Wolf Blitzer following the prime minister's congressional speech.
Between historic tours of the Sea of Galilee and St. Peter's Church, the group attended a "Traditional Sabbath evening dinner" with Fox News contributor Zev Chafets, yet another critic of Obama's nuclear negotiations with Iran.
"Unlike the American president, Bibi can’t afford to simply hope for the best," wrote Chafets in a January 30 Fox commentary about Netanyahu's upcoming congressional speech.
"For almost two decades he has been obsessed with what could happen to his country if the ayatollahs get their hands on the strategic weapons to carry out their deranged Final Solution."
Last October, Chafets wrote of the U.S. president: “There is no reason to give in to U.S. pressure. After all, not even a chicken is scared of a lame duck.”
As previously reported,many past trips to Israel by San Diego officials have been sponsored by the AIPAC affiliate and related Israeli lobbying groups.
In addition to Democratic Congress members Susan Davis, Peters, Vargas, and their staffers, travelers have included port commissioner and ex-admiral Garry Bonelli, as well as assistant San Diego county sheriff Patricia Duke.
According to a January 2014 report by National Journal, Israel was the most frequented freebie destination for House members and congressional staffers of both parties: 142 trips, in total valued at $1,940,000, were taken in 2013.