Ever since news emerged that officials at Washington's powerful pro-Israel lobby were suspected of violating national security laws, speculation has raged over how this would affect its legendary clout. Now, two years down the line, after unceasing crises of investigations, subpoenas, surveillance, wire taps, grand juries and indictments, the consequence is clear: Unhappily, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) is in peril of becoming a modern-day version of the ancient court Jew. In this case, that means bowing to the prerogatives of the Bush administration rather than using its avowed clout actually to influence government policy.
Such obeisance was not the initial reaction. When news first broke about the federal investigation, AIPAC issued strong denials of wrongdoing that were quickly posted on its Web site (although subsequently removed). The lobby stood behind its employees.
But, ultimately, it became clear the feds' probe was centered on two staffers: Iran specialist Keith Weissman and Steve Rosen, the lobby's director of research and foreign policy. Both were indicted last August on charges of conspiring to pass classified security information to individuals not entitled to receive it. Rosen was, in addition, charged with actually passing on such information.
Shockingly, months before the indictment, AIPAC withdrew its support from these staffers. It not only fired them; it publicly denounced them.
This was the first sign of a new and different pro-Israel lobby. In its new incarnation, AIPAC displays an almost blind deference to the positions and wishes of the Bush administration.
How did it come to this? The answer lies partly in the truth that the accused AIPAC staffers, Rosen and Weissman, could not have been lone rangers. When the feds went after these staffers, the entire AIPAC apparatus was at risk and AIPAC knew it. The indictments recount a series of exchanges over several years with named and unnamed government officials from whom Rosen and Weissman allegedly received illicit information. Some of the exchanges date back to 1999, suggesting AIPAC officials have been under active surveillance a long time.
Most tellingly, Rosen and Weissman are alleged to have passed on classified information they received from Pentagon analyst Larry Franklin about an imminent Iranian plot to murder Israeli operatives in northern Iraq -- information the feds instructed Franklin to communicate as part of a sting operation against the two AIPAC staffers after Franklin agreed to cooperate with the feds to reduce his own vulnerability.
I don't think either man was without the knowledge and consent of superiors -- especially in this case, which appeared to be a matter of saving lives. They were doing their jobs, and the evidence suggests they didn't hide anything from their AIPAC bosses. We know from the indictment and other sources that Howard Kohr, AIPAC's executive director, was briefed on the "sting" information on July 21, 2004, the same day it was supplied by Franklin. Moreover, at Kohr's direction, Weissman put it all down on paper in a now-famous e-mail, which made clear that the information came from an intelligence source.
The two staffers then allegedly contacted a journalist and an Israeli embassy official to relay the information.
Is it possible that Kohr entirely washed his hands of the matter before his staffers committed the alleged transgression of passing on classified information to a foreign nation, that is, Israel? How could Kohr not have been kept up to speed, especially given Rosen's close mentor/protégé relationship with him? If, in fact, Kohr did not stay on top of this, he wasn't just asleep at the switch -- he was in a coma, leaving one to wonder who was running the show.
Yet, last spring, AIPAC spokesman Patrick Dorton announced Rosen and Weissman's dismissal. Further, contrary to longstanding policy not to comment publicly on personnel matters, he issued this astonishing statement:
"AIPAC dismissed Rosen and Weissman because they engaged in conduct that was not part of their jobs and because this conduct did not comport in any way with standards that AIPAC expects of its employees.... AIPAC could not condone or tolerate the conduct of the two employees under any circumstances."
On Aug. 4, U.S. Attorney Paul McNulty announced Rosen and Weissman's indictments at a press conference -- but preemptively and publicly exonerated AIPAC and its other staffers of any possible future liability. In fact, he praised AIPAC for having done the "right thing" by firing the two staffers.
AIPAC attorney Nathan Lewin denies these two events reflected any quid pro quo. But meanwhile, AIPAC has also now reportedly refused to cover Rosen and Weissman's legal expenses despite clauses in their contracts that appear to provide for this.
There is one and only one scenario in which this behavior makes any sense: The authorities turned the heat way up and AIPAC buckled.
There may well have been no explicit quid pro quo. But AIPAC's most significant concern would have to be the Foreign Agents Registration Act, known as FARA. That law requires registration with the Justice Department of any "agent of a foreign principal." An agent, in turn, is defined as "any person who acts in any ... capacity at the order, request, or under the direction or control, of a foreign principal...."
Everyone affiliated with AIPAC has long understood that to force it or any of its officials to register as Israel's agent under FARA would effectively be the lobby's death knell. As the feds squeezed AIPAC to jettison Rosen and Weissman, the mere suggestion -- subtle or otherwise -- about possible exposure under FARA would be a Damoclean sword hanging over AIPAC's head.
Unfortunately, such a threat, once succumbed to, does not just cease existing. Evidence abounds that fear over this potential threat has continued to bring the lobby to heel.
How else to explain the now-infamous decision to abandon the singing of "Hatikvah" at last year's policy conference, a proud tradition that had always been an integral and moving part of the gathering.
Moreover, there are reports from the Executive Committee meeting held during the conference that AIPAC leadership displayed near total deference to the administration. Former AIPAC President Melvin Dow apparently took the lead in killing any proposed policy that might step on toes at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.
This reality has been masked by a supreme irony: For AIPAC, the controversy has been a fundraising bonanza. Spurred by explicit appeals from AIPAC leaders invoking the threat posed by the federal investigation, the lobby's supporters have poured record donations into its till. Word is that AIPAC is now preparing to purchase its own building, in the shadows of the Capitol, on prime Washington real estate. AIPAC also continues orchestrating impressive, if misleading, displays of strength and political power. Politicians of all stripes still flock to its events, as do senior members of the Bush administration. Business as usual -- no, better than usual -- has been the carefully honed image.
I wish that were true. But the facts don't bear it out.
Now, evidence that its agenda may have been compromised can be found in AIPAC's total failure to pursue The Saudi Arabia Accountability Act -- one of the most important pieces of national security/anti-terrorism and pro-Israel legislation pending before Congress:
Proposed by Sen. Arlen Specter in June 2005, the bill aims to halt "Saudi support for institutions that fund, train, incite, encourage, or in any other way aid and abet terrorism, and to secure full Saudi cooperation in the investigation of terrorist incidents, and for other purposes."
When introduced, it had bipartisan support across the ideological spectrum.
The legislation is bolstered by the work of many serious experts -- both in and out of government -- who for years have alerted U.S. authorities to the dangerous and deadly activities of Saudi entities, many of which are part of or directly controlled by the government in Riyadh. The legislation's text cites evidence, for example, that Saudi entities furnish at least 50 percent of the current operating budget of Hamas.
Predictably, the Bush administration opposes the legislation; it has no intention to take on the Saudis, despite overwhelming evidence of their heavy involvement in financing, supporting and advocating terror and anti-American and anti-Israel hatred.
But AIPAC's failure even to acknowledge the legislation (check its Web site -- not a word) let alone push for passage, is inexcusable. Can there be a more quintessential example of pro-Israel legislation? So, what's the problem?
It's hard not to conclude that AIPAC's timidity is directly linked to the predicament in which it finds itself. This is no time, AIPAC leaders undoubtedly are thinking, to challenge and upset an administration that already has demonstrated that it is ready, willing and able to play hardball. Having given in on Rosen and Weissman, AIPAC has sent clear signals that it is willing to pull punches, if that's what it takes, to preserve "access" and "influence."
But political clout and financial resources are not ends unto themselves. The pro-Israel community has worked long and hard to build a strong and wealthy lobby. It has a right to expect -- indeed, demand -- from AIPAC leadership an organization with not just brains and brawn, one with the guts to take on, when the cause so dictates, even those they otherwise consider to be friends.
The very last thing the community needs are leaders acting as though they are guests in their own country.
This essay originally appeared in The New York Jewish Week.
Neal M. Sher, a New York-based government relations and communications consultant, formerly served as AIPAC's executive director and the director of the Office of Special Investigations in the Justice Department.