Heck traveling to Israel with other U.S. lawmakers

WASHINGTON -- Rep. Joe Heck, R-Nev., departs today for a weeklong trip to Israel, funded by an arm of a pro-Israel lobbying group, his office said Friday.

Heck and a small group of lawmakers will meet with Israeli officials and representatives of the Palestinian Authority while overseas. A spokesman said the itinerary was not being made public at this time for security reasons.

"I plan to discuss the quest for a practical and workable peace settlement in the region with a wide variety of leaders across the spectrum -- Israelis, Palestinians, religious figures, opposition members and ordinary citizens," Heck said in a statement.

Heck, a member of the House Armed Services and Intelligence committees, also said he wanted to learn more about current cooperation between Israel and the United States on intelligence sharing, homeland security, and weapons and technology matters.

The trip is being funded by the American Israel Education Foundation, which regularly sponsors travel for U.S. policymakers and holds briefings for congressional staff on issues affecting the relationship between the United States and Israel.

Heck's spokesman said the foundation also is paying for Heck's wife, Lisa, to accompany him on the trip.

The foundation is an arm of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, which describes itself as "America's leading pro-Israel lobby."

The American Israel Education Foundation invited 89 lawmakers and a dozen staffers to travel to Israel last August, spending a record $1.5 million as of September, according to records compiled by Legistorm, a congressional analysis service. Roll Call reported in September the trips cost about $10,000 a person.

Government watchdogs such as Public Citizen have raised eyebrows at lawmakers accepting privately funded travel from nonprofits closely associated with lobbying groups.

Others say they serve a valuable educational purpose, without costing taxpayers, at a time when government is being urged to economize.

Congress passed restrictions on privately funded travel four years ago in a rewrite of its ethics rules but put in place few limits on travel paid by nonprofits.

Heck's upcoming trip would be his first to Israel as a member of Congress.

Spokesman Darren Littell said he did not know whether Heck has been to the country previously as a private citizen or in his capacity as an officer in the U.S. Army Reserve.