October 7, 2007

"BUT I HAVE DEVELOPED A TASTE FOR THE FLESH OF CHRISTIAN BABIES...":

I was lobbied by the 'Israel lobby': A dispatch from inside the soft sell (Elaine McArdle, October 7, 2007, Boston Globe)

Among AIPAC's many lobbying activities - it has a 200-person staff and an annual budget of $47 million - are the well-known tours it organizes to Israel three or four times a year, not just for journalists but for politicians, too. This summer, it hosted 40 US congressmen from both parties. And although mainstream news organizations still bar their staff reporters from taking paid junkets, others aren't shy at all. Recent tours have included staff from "The Daily Show" and reporters from Spanish and African-American media. "There's hardly a journalist left in D.C. who hasn't taken this trip," one AIPAC representative told us, with only some sense of overstatement.

AIPAC is far from alone in providing high-end tours to those whose favor it courts. Political junkets have been a staple of Washington lobbying for years. And free media trips, once unheard of, are now flourishing. Last year, a friend accepted an all-expenses-paid trip from the city of Hamburg, Germany, to cover a music festival; another friend is going to the Philippines later this month. Other nations and tourist bureaus offer the same.

I've never written about foreign policy, and despite Mearsheimer and Walt's book, I don't have any reason to think of AIPAC as different than any other lobbying group. Still, after a friend gave them my name and the invitation came, I struggled over whether to accept such a lavish gift from an organization with something to sell. I consulted with other journalists, most of whom asked only one question: How could they get on the next AIPAC trip?

I decided to use the junket as an immersion tutorial on the Middle East, the kind of trip I had neither the contacts nor financial resources to arrange for myself. My goal was to become much better informed without being swayed by a particular viewpoint. If AIPAC tried to strong-arm its agenda, I wasn't worried. I was an experienced journalist: the harder someone pushes, the more skeptical I am.

With more than 100,000 members, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, formed in the 1950s, is one of the most powerful special interest groups in the United States, able to quickly muster passionate grass-roots supporters to put pressure on politicians. Washington insiders count it as one of the best-organized and successful lobbying groups today, and other special interest groups use it as a model.

AIPAC organizes junkets to Israel through its educational wing, the American Israel Education Foundation. The goal is to show influential people the real-world situation that American policy is addressing in the Middle East and let them see "a wide diversity of opinions with their own eyes," says AIPAC spokesman Josh Block.

Our weeklong tour would cost AIPAC around $5,000 per person, including six nights in first-class hotels, Block told me. AIPAC was asking nothing of us in return. No one in our group - mainly freelance writers like me, with little experience in foreign policy - had assignments to write about Israel.

And there was no hard sell in sight.

Posted by Orrin Judd at October 7, 2007 8:13 AM
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