Paid trips to Israel for state politicians give off whiff of public influence-buying

Originally published in the Dorchester Reporter, November 2015

What do Dorchester state Rep. Dan Cullinane, Boston City Councillors Timothy McCarthy, Josh Zakim, and Tito Jackson, Quincy state Sen. John Keenan, and US Representatives Seth Moulton and Katherine Clark have in common? They all recently accepted paid junkets to Israel that were sponsored by special interests who lobby the State House and the Congress. And they are not alone.

Over the years, scores of state and local officials, legislative staffers, and labor and community leaders have gone on similar all-expense-paid trips to Israel, with business-class flights and accommodations in four-star hotels.

Former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, who visited Israel at least twice during his term, and other public officials usually justify these trips as “trade missions.” However, Bay State exports to Israel are negligible compared to major trading partners like Canada, the UK, China, Germany, and Japan. In fact, Israel ranked at No. 27 in trade with Massachusetts, behind Malaysia, India, the Philippines, and Turkey, all countries we don’t hear much about from our elected representatives. Israel’s actual contribution to our state’s $460 billion economy is vanishingly small.

Of course, these trips are really about politics, not business. Special interests cover the cumulative hundreds of thousands of dollars in costs for the junkets, whose aim is to indoctrinate civic and politi- cal leaders with a one-sided, uncritical view of Israel. But in a sense, all the citizens of Massachusetts are paying the price.

If the commonwealth has a foreign policy, then Israel, with a population smaller than New York City’s, would seem to play an outsized role. Last month’s State House resolution supporting Israel was only one of numerous bills that regularly address issues of importance to that country and to its local backers.

Back in 2010, the same special interests pres- sured our Legislature to mandate divestment of Massachusetts assets from foreign companies doing business with Iran despite testimony from the head of the State Retirement Board that divestment would cost millions of dollars for our pension funds to implement. The divestment idea was first floated by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and later pushed by local, pro-Israel lobbyists. Its eventual passage counted on the votes of many legislators who had accepted paid junkets to Israel.

On the federal level, the conflict of interest is even more extreme. Nearly every member of Congress has been on a privately funded propaganda trip to Israel and the result is a never-ending stream of biased resolutions in favor of Israel that has made the US government an international laughingstock. This costs us lots of money, too.

At more than $3 billion in annual payments from American taxpayer funds, Israel is by far the largest recipient of US foreign aid, far outstripping what is spent for genuinely needy countries. Earlier this month, Netanyahu was in Washington seeking an increase of US aid to $5 billion annually. Is this the best use of our scarce governmental resources when there are so many unmet needs at home?

It is reasonable for public officials to travel abroad when there is a genuine policy or legislative concern. But if so, they should use public, not special-interest funds to pay for it. US Rep. Stephen Lynch, for example, has acquired substantial first-hand knowledge about the Middle East over the years through participation in official Congressional delegations to the region.

Privately paid junkets to Israel, on the other hand, may be technically legal, but they carry more than a whiff of public influence-buying. This is wrong – and ultimately it is we the taxpayers who foot the bill.

– Jeff Klein

Jeff Klein, a retired union president and Dorchester resident, is member of the board of Massachusetts Peace Action.