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I was lobbied by the 'Israel lobby'

A dispatch from inside the soft sell

AN IMPASSIONED DEBATE over the tight alliance between America and Israel is roiling political circles, sparked by a new book that accuses a powerful "Israel lobby" of distorting American policy and endangering our national security. Building on an article they published last year, John J. Mearsheimer at the University of Chicago and Stephen M. Walt at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard argue in "The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy" that Israel exerts far more influence than it should on American politics.

They paint a picture of a potent coalition of neoconservatives, Christian fundamentalists, Jewish organizations, and, most strikingly, a richly coffered and extremely influential lobbying group, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), which courts both Democrats and Republicans in order to promote Israel. The authors' claims have been attacked by a broad base of critics, seized upon by anti-Semites, and applauded by some who believe this discussion is long overdue.

I wasn't around at the time the controversy ignited. I happened to be in Israel with eight other American journalists, on a first-class, all-expenses-paid tour funded entirely by AIPAC.

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.

Flying business class meant free cocktails in the elite-passenger lounges at Logan and in Newark, hot towels and cold drinks fetched by the flight attendant, and a seat that folded into a bed. I slept the nine-hour flight to Tel Aviv. AIPAC handlers met us at the airport to smooth our passage through customs. A luxury bus drove us through the stunning countryside to Jerusalem, where we checked into the five-star Inbal Hotel in the heart of the city.

Over the next seven days, led by a renowned archeologist, we toured the desert by bus and the Old City in Jerusalem by foot. We lay on the beach in Tel Aviv, a city as vibrant and sophisticated as Manhattan. We saw the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial and played with Ethiopian toddlers in an immigrant absorption center. On our first night in Jerusalem, we sat at an outdoor cafe smoking tobacco through an enormous hookah pipe as nearby tables of young men and women - many in army uniforms and carrying M-16s - laughed and flirted in the cool night air.

I'd been to Israel before, on a brief visit while in college, and the intensity of the place was just as I remembered. With its stark beauty and pervasive sense of urgency, Israel runs at a high pitch: nonstop political debates among strangers, discos and bars open all night in Tel Aviv. In one club, a couple unabashedly smoked a joint. Was marijuana legal in Israel? I asked. "They have bigger things to worry about," a colleague answered.

Our trip gave us access to experiences average tourists just don't get, including meetings with top government officials and intimate conversations with ordinary Israeli families.

There's an army post near the town of Metulla on the Israel-Lebanon border, its perimeter so nondescript that our military guide kept missing the entrance, to the bemusement of a family picnicking nearby. The base commander was out on urgent business (we later learned there'd been an incident between Israel and Syria), and the 23-year-old left in charge handled the surprise arrival of a group of American journalists with aplomb. Behind him, teenage soldiers in uniform played pickup basketball in the afternoon sun, their M-16s arrayed on the cement. I thought of my own 17-year-old son, also hoops-obsessed.

That night our group dined on fresh olives and grilled fish in a grove of trees next to a stream. Last summer, over a two-day period, this area was hit with 256 Hezbollah rockets fired from Lebanon, and families huddled in bomb shelters. Children today, we were told, still wet their beds in fear. I talked at length with a farmer who spoke highly of the Lebanese workers he'd hired before the borders were closed; now, he told me, he feels heartbroken. He smiled broadly every time he mentioned his infant granddaughter, and I wondered how long I, in his place, could tolerate the omnipresence of danger.

On Friday, our group squeezed into a tiny Jerusalem apartment to share an intimate Shabbat dinner with a happy family, the mother a Chicago-born woman who'd made her aliyah 21 years ago and now has four children, including a son in the army. She generously offered to host my son should he ever visit Israel.

We were exposed to the spectrum of Israeli political discourse, from a table-thumping, American-born Likudnik to speakers who described themselves as former leftists now politically adrift after the disastrous victory of Hamas in the Palestinian Authority elections.

But we didn't hear everything.

When I'd stayed in Jerusalem years ago, a college friend and I met a young Israeli Arab who showed us around the Old City without proselytizing. He had brothers in California and was eager to reach out to Americans. I yearned to talk with someone like him.

Even more glaring was the omission of the Palestinian point of view. We met with dozens of Israelis with a range of political views but only one Palestinian, Dr. Saeb Erakat, chief negotiator for the Palestine Liberation Organization. While this could have been an important moment in our trip, Erakat talked in circles for 45 minutes, and none of us had any idea what points - if any - he was trying to make.

With some effort - and stamina, given our breakneck schedule - we could have arranged to hear the other side. One colleague and I determined that, after a scheduled dinner toward the end of the week, we would take a cab to Ramallah in the West Bank. But dinner ended close to midnight and our bus was leaving for the Dead Sea the next morning at 8 a.m. We headed back to our hotel instead.

When I returned to Boston, I had a new store of knowledge and a profound fascination with the Middle East. What else had I brought home?

In January 2003, Justice Antonin Scalia went on a duck-hunting trip to Louisiana with Vice President Dick Cheney, a litigant in a case before the US Supreme Court. In the ensuing uproar, Scalia was indignant. "I do not think my impartiality could reasonably be questioned," he insisted.

Not by him, anyway. Because one of the things psychologists tell us about persuasion is that we have a very hard time knowing if it's happened to us.

I was well aware that I had heard only one side of the story on my trip. So how could I be susceptible to persuasion? But I also knew that any lobbying group that drops thousands of dollars on someone expects to get something in return.

I called John A. Bargh, a Yale psychology professor who studies nonconscious influences on behavior, and walked him through the details of my junket. Did he think I was swayed by the experience? "Of course you are," he said. "You'd almost have to be. And you can't know it."

A key tool in the subtle art of persuasion, he said, is reciprocity: offer someone a pleasant experience or gift and they feel an almost irresistible obligation to return the favor. The norm of reciprocity cuts across every culture, and the value of the gift is irrelevant: a cup of coffee is as effective as an extravagant trip. Another tool is to provide friendship and human connection - it's inevitable that a bond will develop when you spend substantial time with someone, especially in a foreign place, where you depend on them.

In the case of the AIPAC junket, it was a one-two punch: an unforgettable and emotionally charged week with warm, likable people - generous hosts and tour guides whom I worried about after returning to the safety of life in Massachusetts.

Emily Pronin, an assistant professor of psychology at Princeton who studies how bias works in the human mind, told me that she and others have found that although we are quick to spot bias in others, bias in ourselves operates almost entirely on a subconscious level. She calls it the "bias blind spot." Scalia's cozy weekend was innocent in his own eyes. Doctors who worry about the sway of pharmaceutical companies over their colleagues insist that their own medical judgment would never be affected. Journalists think they're too savvy to be hustled by lobbyists. We're all operating under a fundamental misperception about the soft sell: that we'll see it happening and avoid it.

"It's a perception of bias as conscious, evil, corrupt behavior," she told me. "As long as we think that's how it goes, we'll continue to say it doesn't affect us."

Since we're all deeply invested in our own sense of integrity - and being accused of bias is an affront - we are primed to deny it. Because bias is subconscious, Bargh said, when our opinion does change we'll convince ourselves that it's because objective reality has changed, or that we didn't have enough facts before.

Armed with this new appreciation for the subtleties of influence, I've found myself picking over the question: how much has my opinion on Israel been moved?

It's not hard for me to acknowledge that I'm much more sympathetic to the predicament of Israel than I was before I saw the place so extensively with my own eyes. Traveling the countryside has given me a much clearer picture of its precarious state, with a mere 9 miles separating the West Bank from Tel Aviv - less than from Boston to Concord, and easy distance for rockets. You can certainly see why Israel wouldn't give up the West Bank until it has a partner it can trust. Its existence - and the lives of the people we met - are at risk.

Before the junket, I would have described myself as admiring of Israel but increasingly disturbed by its human rights violations.

Now I would say I find myself aligned with a growing group of former Israeli leftists, those who once believed a peaceful solution was imminent but after the debacle of Gaza have, with heavy hearts, lost their bearings and moved toward the center.

Is this a seismic shift? No. But I also have no way of knowing where I would stand had I paid for the trip with my own money, organized my own interviews, and gotten equal access to the Palestinian point of view.

Our guides, to their credit, showed us the separation wall at its most formidable and depressing. But what life is like on the other side of that wall - whether families are eating olives and grilled fish, what their hopes and dreams for the future are, whether they dream of a nonviolent resolution to the conflict - of this, I have no personal experience.

At the end of a week, what had AIPAC gotten for its investment in me? Did I come back rabidly pro-Israel? No. Did I come back significantly better informed and far more interested in the Middle East? Absolutely. I am reading a daily newspaper, Haaretz, online and hope to return to the region.

Was I swayed by AIPAC? It is hard for me to say. I don't think so. Of course I don't.

Elaine McArdle is a Cambridge-based writer.

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