WASHINGTON — The trip was much like any of the hundreds hosted in recent years by a nonprofit offshoot of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, a powerful Washington lobby, and the purpose was much the same: to solidify the support of American lawmakers for Israel at a time of Middle East tumult.
For eight all expense-paid days, House Republicans visited Israel’s holiest sites, talked foreign policy with its highest officials and dined at its most famous restaurants, including Decks, known for its grilled beef, stunning views of the Sea of Galilee, and now, for an impromptu swim party.
With hundreds of Washington lawmakers having gone to Israel courtesy of the program, the trips have a reputation as being the standard-bearer for foreign Congressional travel. “We call it the Jewish Disneyland trip,” said one pro-Israel advocate in Washington.
But for lawmakers, the attention surrounding last summer’s trip — thanks to reports of a skinny-dipping Kansas lawmaker who was part of the delegation — has cast an unwanted spotlight once again on the practice of private groups paying for foreign travel, a source of frequent criticism in the past.
One of the most famous travel boondoggles — a golf trip to Scotland for members of Congress and staff members, hosted by the lobbyist Jack Abramoff — led Congress in 2007 to tighten restrictions on who could sponsor trips and for how long. But despite the new restrictions, the number of Congressional trips paid for by outside groups has actually increased since 2007, to more than 1,600 from about 1,300, according to Legistorm, a research group that tracks Congressional data. To comply with the new restrictions, many political and lobbying groups have turned to nonprofit groups they set up and finance to host the Congressional trips.
Since 2000, the American Israel Education Foundation has been more prolific than any other in sponsoring overseas trips for members of Congress and their staffs, organizing 733 trips for both Republicans and Democrats at a cost of more than $7 million. Last year, it spent $2 million to sponsor 146 trips, far outpacing a Turkish coalition that ranked second, sponsoring 32 trips.
Last summer, there were so many members of Congress traveling — about 80 — that the education fund sponsored two separate trips. Israeli officials who met with the Congressional delegation that included the swim party said it seemed to include many first-time visitors, who knew little about Israel and appeared a bit naïve about its policies and traditions. Many of them were newcomers in Congress who were elected in 2010 with Tea Party support.
“What was remarkable about that group was most of them were freshmen; it was their first visit in Israel, and they did not know much, but they were very interested,” said one senior Israeli official who met with the delegation and spoke on the condition of anonymity. “I’m used to meeting members of Congress, and usually they’ve been here, we know them from the past.”
Among the donors who have helped to finance the trips is Sheldon Adelson, the casino magnate who is a strong Israel supporter and has pledged to spend as much as $100 million to defeat President Obama. A charitable trust operated by Mr. Adelson and his wife gave $1.2 million in 2006 to the American Israel Education Foundation, records show.
Bill Allison, editorial director for the Sunlight Foundation, a Washington group that promotes transparency in government, said the new controversy shows that problems with Congressional travel continue despite the restrictions aimed at stemming abuses.
“What this says is that these kinds of trips are still happening, because these groups want to influence those members of Congress, to make them sympathetic to the host’s interests,” he said.
In response to the controversy over the nude swimming by Representative Kevin Yoder, Republican of Kansas, the education fund described its trips as “intensely substantive and filled from morning until evening with educational discussions and meetings with government officials” on regional threats and other issues.
House leaders — including Democrats — echoed that view.
Representative Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland, the second-ranking House Democrat, said Tuesday: “The behavior exhibited by some Republican members of Congress on the shores of the Sea of Galilee was disrespectful. In no way, though, should their actions reflect poorly on Congressional visits to Israel sponsored by the American Israel Education Foundation — trips I have participated in that present a rigorous, serious and educational opportunity to understand the complex challenges Israel faces.”
Mr. Hoyer’s Republican counterpart, Representative Eric Cantor of Virginia, the House majority leader and a strong supporter of Israel, has been on five trips since 2003, including last summer’s, at a total cost to the group of more than $57,000, data from Legistorm show. His office acknowledged this week that Mr. Cantor delivered a rebuke to members of the delegation at the time over their behavior last year “to ensure such activities would not take place in the future.”
During last summer’s trip, delegation members met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, President Shimon Peres and several other top Israeli diplomats. Beyond their political access, the trips are known for providing lawmakers with stays in top-tier hotels like the King David in Jerusalem as well as private tours of Bethlehem, the Dead Sea, the Yad Vashem museum commemorating the Holocaust and other important historical and religious sites.
But not everyone in Israel understands why this particular trip has generated such attention in Washington.
Newspapers in Israel have mocked the “shocking story” of the Congressional skinny dipping. The Israeli official who met with the Republican delegation said that he himself had gone swimming nude in the sea and that it was not uncommon for young Israelis. “I don’t understand what is really the big deal,” the official said, “but I understand that America is a Puritan country and nudity is a big thing in America.”
Eric Lichtblau reported from Washington, and Jodi Rudoren from Jerusalem.