Rejecting Israel Lobby’s Influence Over Congress, Rashida Tlaib Plans to Lead Delegation to Palestine

For decades, AIPAC has sponsored trips to Israel for new members of Congress. Rep.-elect Rashida Tlaib, a Palestinian-American, is planning an alternative.

Rep.-elect Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., pauses to speak to media as she walks from member-elect briefings and orientation on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, Nov. 15, 2018. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
Rep.-elect Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., pauses to speak to media on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., on Nov. 15, 2018. Photo: Carolyn Kaster/AP

Rashida Tlaib, a Democratic representative-elect from Michigan, belongs to a cohort of incoming members of Congress who’ve vowed to upend the status quo — even on third-rail issues in Washington like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. To that end, Tlaib is planning to lead a congressional delegation to the Israeli-occupied West Bank, she told The Intercept. Her planned trip is a swift rebuke of a decades-old tradition for newly elected members: a junket to Israel sponsored by the education arm of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, known as AIPAC, the powerful pro-Israel lobby group.

The AIPAC trips are among the lesser-known traditions for freshman members of Congress. They’re typically scheduled during the first August recess in every legislative session and feature a weeklong tour of Israel and meetings with leading Israeli figures in business, government, and the military. Both critics and proponents of the AIPAC freshmen trip say the endeavor is incredibly influential, providing House members with a distinctly pro-Israel viewpoint on complex controversies in the region. In recent years, the Democratic tour has been led by incoming Majority Leader Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Md. Incoming Minority Leader Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., traditionally leads the Republican trip.

Tlaib, who is the first Palestinian-American woman to be elected to Congress, hopes to draw on her roots in the region to offer her fellow incoming representatives an alternative introduction to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. She said her group will focus on issues like Israel’s detention of Palestinian children, education, access to clean water, and poverty. She may even take them to Beit Ur al-Foqa, the village where Tlaib’s grandmother lives, in the northern West Bank.

It is unclear who will join Tlaib on the trip. She is still working out the details of when it will take place and what advocacy organizations she will partner with to fund the delegation. But Tlaib is clear about one thing: She wants her delegation to humanize Palestinians, provide an alternative perspective to the one AIPAC pushes, and highlight the inherent inequality of Israel’s system of military occupation in Palestinian territories, which Tlaib likens to what African-Americans in the United States endured in the Jim Crow era. She is not planning any meetings with the Palestinian Authority or with Israeli government officials, a mainstay of the AIPAC trips.

“They don’t show the side that I know is real, which is what’s happening to my grandmother and what’s happening to my family there.”

“I want us to see that segregation and how that has really harmed us being able to achieve real peace in that region,” Tlaib said in an interview. “I don’t think AIPAC provides a real, fair lens into this issue. It’s one-sided. … [They] have these lavish trips to Israel, but they don’t show the side that I know is real, which is what’s happening to my grandmother and what’s happening to my family there.”

Tlaib’s challenge to AIPAC isn’t limited to leading a separate trip to the region. In her interview with The Intercept, she for the first time came out in support of Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions, the movement known as BDS that seeks to punish Israel over its human rights abuses.

“I personally support the BDS movement,” said Tlaib. She added that economic boycotts are a way to bring attention to “issues like the racism and the international human rights violations by Israel right now.”

Yousef Munayyer, the executive director of the U.S. Campaign for Palestinian Rights, said that Tlaib’s trip is a sign that she will bring a fresh perspective to this issue when she takes office.

“She brings a certain viewpoint to this that is new and that we have not really seen before — especially with having family in the West Bank and having a strong connection there,” Munayyer said. “To have somebody like that perhaps play a leading role in helping to shed light on the situation to other members of Congress is important.”

Tlaib’s announcement of her pro-BDS position comes just weeks after Rep.-elect Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., faced a firestorm of criticism, including accusations of anti-Semitism, for coming out in favor of BDS. Omar and Tlaib are the only two members of Congress to publicly support the movement, but their outspokenness is an indication of a shifting conversation in Washington about unconditional U.S. support for Israel, despite its harsh rule over Palestinians.

Human rights activists contend that AIPAC’s trips are a major factor in tilting the scales in Washington, D.C. toward policies that reflect the interests of the Israeli government over Palestinians, helping policymakers to disregard Israel’s continued occupation of the West Bank, its settlements, and its military strikes against the Gaza Strip.

AIPAC has flexed its muscle in Congress and with the Trump administration to press for increased military aid to Israel and limit financial support to Palestinians, roll back former President Barack Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran, and pass new laws to criminalize participation in the BDS movement, which calls for an end to Israel’s occupation, equality for Palestinian citizens of Israel, and the right of return for Palestinian refugees kicked out of Israel in 1948. Under the Trump administration, key AIPAC priorities have become U.S. policy: moving the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and backing out of the Iran deal.

A typical House freshmen trip usually costs between $9,300 to $10,500 per participant.

Over the last decade, AIPAC’s education arm, the American Israel Education Foundation, has spent $12.9 million on trips to Israel for 363 lawmakers and 657 congressional staff members, according to an Intercept analysis of public disclosures. A typical House freshmen trip usually costs between $9,300 to $10,500 per participant, which covers all expenses, including a business-class flight and a stay at a luxury hotel in Jerusalem. Lawmakers are invited to bring one family member.

The trips are institutionalized by congressional leadership officials in both parties. Hoyer’s press office confirmed that the Democratic leader will ask newly elected House Democrats to take part in an AIPAC trip to Israel next year and defended the program against charges of bias.

“While it has not yet been planned, Mr. Hoyer intends to once again serve as the senior member on a delegation of Members of Congress to Israel next year,” said Annaliese Davis, a spokesperson for Hoyer.

“The delegation trip to Israel is an opportunity for freshmen Members of Congress to learn more about regional threats and dynamics in the Middle East and the complexities of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” Davis wrote in a statement. The organizers of the AIPAC trip, she added, “work hard to show both sides of that conflict,” including meetings with Palestinian leadership, the Israeli advocacy group Peace Now, and “Israeli leaders from across the ideological spectrum.”

(L-R): Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-MD), and Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), enter the stage, for a panel discussion at the 2018 American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) Policy Conference, at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center in Washington, D.C., on Monday, March 5, 2018. (Photo by Cheriss May)(Sipa via AP Images)

From left, Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Md., and Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., take the stage for a panel discussion at the 2018 American Israel Public Affairs Committee Policy Conference in Washington, D.C., on March 5, 2018.

Photo: Cheriss May/Sipa via AP

AIPAC’s Pro-Israel Itinerary

Lawmakers who take the AIPAC trip have little time to hear from Palestinians and make no visits to Gaza, a coastal enclave facing a brutal embargo and Israeli military encirclement that is central to the conflict, according to itineraries for past trips filed with the House Ethics Committee.

In 2017, Democratic members of the 115th Congress spent the majority of their seven-day trip meetings with Israeli leaders. They took tours of Christian and Jewish religious and cultural sites; made two visits to learn about Israeli missile defense; and had dinner with the Times of Israel editor and, separately, with Israeli startup executives. The lawmakers also attended a briefing with an Israeli lieutenant colonel about the threat posed by Hezbollah, a meeting with U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman, and a meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, among other visits with Israeli officials, according to their itinerary.

The schedule included only one visit with a Palestinian leader: an hour and 15 minute meeting with Shukri Bishara, the finance minister of the Palestinian Authority. The delegation also attended a breakfast meeting that featured a former director of Peace Now, along with Oded Revivi, mayor of Efrat, an Israeli settlement in the West Bank.

The GOP freshman of the 115th Congress had a similar itinerary, meeting with dozens of Israeli leaders and having just one brief meeting with officials from the Palestinian Authority.

Since 2013, the Republican and Democratic lawmakers have come together for a segment of their separate AIPAC trips. That tradition was started by Hoyer and McCarthy after Rep. Eric Cantor, R-Va., who led the GOP delegation in previous years, unexpectedly lost his party’s primary in 2012.

Hoyer, for his part, has been leading these trips in large numbers since 2003. “I get a reinvigoration of my principles and of my commitment and how critically important a relationship between Israel and the United States is,” said Hoyer at the AIPAC National Policy Conference in 2016, explaining the purpose of going to Israel. The trips, Hoyer added, are essential for “sending a message to the world that Israel’s survival and security is a critical issue for the United States of America.”

The Maryland Democrat was the highest-ranking House Democrat to co-sponsor the controversial legislation designed to criminalize participation in the BDS movement in 2017. Earlier this year, he told The Intercept that he supported the Israeli military’s assault on Palestinian protesters at the demarcation line that separates Israel from Gaza, which left over 50 demonstrators dead and over 2,000 injured.

“The AIPAC sponsored trips are organized with the express purpose of building one-sided support for Israel in Congress.”

“The AIPAC sponsored trips are organized with the express purpose of building one-sided support for Israel in Congress. There is nothing balanced about them,” Mike Merryman-Lotze, the Palestine-Israel program director for the American Friends Service Committee, wrote in an email to The Intercept. He noted that the lawmakers don’t spend any significant time in Palestinian areas, nor do they meet with Palestinians from the occupied territories or members of independent civil society.

Lawmakers’ own descriptions of the junkets highlight their one-sided nature.

After his AIPAC trip to Israel, Rep. Randy Hultgren, R-Ill., wrote an opinion column for the Chicago Sun-Times, noting that he had spent most of his time with “many of the nation’s top leaders, including Prime Minister Netanyahu, members of his cabinet, military leaders and our counterparts in the legislature.”

Hultgren faulted only Palestinians for continued violence in the region and concluded that the U.S. must continue to support Israel “to strengthen our cultural, religious and economic ties that bind us together in common purpose.”

Rep. Jim Langevin, D-R.I., discussed his support for Israel’s controversial separation wall after his trip with AIPAC in 2003. In an interview with the Jewish Telegraph Agency, he said, “It gave me a better understanding of why things like the fence are necessary — and a rational response to the terrorist threats Israel faces.”

Democratic Dissent

Rep. Betty McCollum, D-Minn., a rare congressional champion for Palestinian rights, sharply criticized the influence of AIPAC.

“There should be no illusion among newly elected Members of Congress that AIPAC sponsored travel to Israel is intended to do anything other than advance the right-wing Netanyahu-Likud agenda of settlement expansion, occupation, and eliminating the opportunity for a two-state solution,” McCollum said in a statement to The Intercept.

McCollum encouraged Democrats to travel to Israel, but to do so while engaging with Palestinians living under military occupation and to learn how Israeli and Palestinian lives interconnect and are impacted by U.S. policy decisions.

“I understand why GOP members go on AIPAC trips since they share a right-wing agenda.”

“These AIPAC lobbying trips are designed to keep nearly $4 billion in U.S. taxpayer dollars flowing to Israel’s military every year. I understand why GOP members go on AIPAC trips since they share a right-wing agenda,” said McCollum.

Another outspoken critic of the trips is former Rep. Brian Baird, D-Wash., who once described the trips as “virtually obligatory” because Democratic leadership leaned heavily on members to embrace AIPAC.

Baird traveled to the Gaza Strip independently in 2010. The lawmaker told reporters that being able to witness the living conditions and the damage wrought by Operation Cast Lead, the Israeli incursion into the area that killed over 1,000 civilians, opened his eyes to the imbalance of U.S. policy in the region.

“If all that happens is that you come to this region and you are led around by the hand to see the things that someone wants you to see, hear the stories that someone wants you to hear, you will not get the full impression of what’s actually going on,” he told CNN.

Some liberal Jewish-American activists have been trying for more than a decade to provide an alternative to the AIPAC junkets. In 2007, they formed J Street. The liberal advocacy group supports a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict and has called for peaceful reconciliation with Palestinians.

J Street has been organizing congressional trips to Israel since 2010. But even those trips, which bring lawmakers in closer contact with Palestinian activists, are similarly centered on meeting with Israeli military and political figures.

The group has tried to compete with AIPAC, but has only a fraction of the resources. Over the last decade, AIPAC has spent $12.8 million flying 1,020 lawmakers and congressional staff to Israel, a review of ethics records show. In contrast, J Street has spent a little over half a million dollars over the same period flying 63 lawmakers and staff to the region.

American Israel Education Foundation-Funded Travel for U.S. Congress

Number of Lawmakers Who Attended Trip Cost for Lawmakers Total Number of Attendees, Including Staff Total Trip Cost
111th Congress 65 $1,007,361 172 $1,727,127
112th Congress 100 $1,820,063 212 $2,730,500
113th Congress 88 $1,548,223 249 $3,043,369
114th Congress 69 $1,400,156 219 $2,981,239
115th Congress* 41 $872,626 168 $2,361,902
(January 3, 2009 – November 26, 2018)
363 $6,648,429 1,020 $12,844,137

*Incomplete Data. Source: LegiStorm, Office of the Clerk of the U.S. House of Representatives

“A lot of members feel pressure to go on the trip. Steny asks them to do it, so they just do it,” said one veteran Capitol Hill staffer who asked to remain anonymous. “The progressive members leave with a bad taste in their mouth. If you’re a freshman, you disengage on Israel-Palestine issues because you quickly realize after the trip it’s not worth it to butt heads with leadership.”

“If you’re a freshman, you disengage on Israel-Palestine issues because you quickly realize after the trip it’s not worth it to butt heads with leadership.”

Tlaib, by disavowing the AIPAC trip and planning her own, will be butting heads with leadership even before officially entering office. Other newly elected Democrats indicated that they are exploring the possibility of joining Tlaib’s alternative trip to the region, but were not ready to comment publicly.

The Michigan Democrat’s position is in line with that of advocates for Palestinian rights in Washington. Osama Abuirshaid, the national policy director with American Muslims for Palestine, called on members of Congress to rethink their participation in the AIPAC junkets, which he said give cover to Israeli human rights violations.

“If these members have to go to the region, then they need to cross to other side, witness the Palestinian suffering with their own eyes, and meet with Israeli and Palestinian human rights organizations and activists on the ground,” Abuirshaid added.

Palestinian rights advocates also say that Tlaib’s willingness to buck the party line on Israel reflects a restive Democratic base that supports tougher action against Israeli settlements and its military occupation. A recent Economist/YouGov poll found that only a quarter of American liberals think of Israel as an ally — a number down from the 36 percent of liberals who viewed Israel as an ally in 2017.

“Palestinian rights are being integrated into the broader progressive agenda. It’s becoming almost standard that if you support single-payer health care and climate justice, you’ll support Palestinian rights,” said Rebecca Vilkomerson, the executive director of Jewish Voice for Peace.

But that stance is at odds with a Democratic Party leadership that headlined, along with Vice President Mike Pence, a conference of the Israeli-American Council, a pro-Israel group funded by right-wing donors like Sheldon Adelson, over the weekend.

“The base has shifted and the leadership is going to have to shift sooner than they think,” said Vilkomerson. “The fight isn’t over yet. But that era of bipartisan unity in support of Israel really seems to be over.”

Correction: December 3, 2018, 6:06 p.m. ET
An earlier version of this story attributed a statement from American Muslims for Palestine to Kareem El-Husseiny. In fact, El-Husseiny sent the statement to the reporters on behalf of Osama Abuirshaid, the organization’s national policy director, without attribution.

Correction: December 4, 2018
An earlier version of this article misidentified AIPAC’s education arm. It is the American Israel Education Foundation. 

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