Hours after CBS News first reported that federal officials were investigating a possible Israeli "mole" at the Pentagon, the first analysis hit the wires claiming that the emerging scandal wouldn't damage U.S.-Israel relations.
It was quick journalistic work, but it wasn't worth the bytes it was written on. The plain fact is, the scandal will affect Jewish and pro-Israel interests in myriad ways -- even if the federal investigation fizzles and no charges are brought. And any proof that Israel was spying on the Pentagon, with the cooperation of the pro-Israel lobby, would be devastating both for Israel and for the Jewish community here.
At the very least, the fast-moving controversy highlights the many gray areas created when two close allies share military and strategic information through a web of formal and informal contacts.
Jewish leaders believe the leaks that produced the CBS story and the exaggerated talk of a mole may have been triggered by the bitter struggle between administration neoconservatives -- many of them Jewish, many in the top ranks of the Pentagon organization chart -- and the traditional conservatives and military and intelligence professionals who fear the neocons have led America into a military debacle in Iraq and want to do the same in Iran.
In particular, these forces have been critical of Douglas Feith, undersecretary of defense for policy, a hawk's hawk and the boss of the man at the epicenter of the controversy, Pentagon analyst Larry Franklin.
This week, unnamed officials told reporters that the premature revelations had compromised their investigations, and that Franklin's status remained "murky." But, on Tuesday, there were reports federal prosecutors in Alexandria, Va., the site of a number of recent high-profile spy and terror prosecutions, were nearing a decision on legal action.
But even if the investigation produces no arrests and no evidence American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) went beyond the bounds of legal lobbying, it has the potential to cause damage to Israel, to Jewish interests here and to U.S.-Israel relations.
The accusation of a "mole" -- that term made sensational headlines, but it wasn't borne out by later reporting -- plays into the ongoing belief by many on both ends of the political spectrum that a cabal of Jewish neoconservatives led America into a destructive war in Iraq, not because of America's interests -- but Israel's.
The charge lacks credibility for several reasons, including President Bush's obvious determination to topple Saddam Hussein from the earliest days of his administration and the fact that Israel never considered Iraq its most dangerous enemy.
But it has been persistent and damaging, and it is bound to gain new currency with this week's barrage of news stories, some of which implied that pro-Israel neocons improperly gave Israel input into U.S. decision making on Iraq, as well as Iran. As the story spun out in the press, the Iraq references faded, but they are unlikely to be forgotten by those eager to blame the Jewish state and its American friends.
The scandal will refocus attention on a group of Jewish neoconservatives who have been polarizing figures both inside and outside government circles, including Feith and Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz.
The charges, even if unsubstantiated, could impede the widespread military cooperation between Washington and Jerusalem -- ties that are even more important as the allies fight the terrorist forces that have targeted both nations. At the political level, there may be little impact, but the taint of even discredited spy charges could sow suspicions and fears that will make day-to-day cooperation at the working level more difficult.
The charges will also have a chilling effect on countless Jews serving in important government positions.
The new spy scandal is also bad news for the one American jailed for spying for Israel: Pollard, now in his 19th year of incarceration. This week's stories will re-energize the military and intelligence officials who have worked so hard to prevent his release and make this president and the next one even warier about the political fallout from a Pollard pardon.
There is also the potential human tragedy of a non-Jew who cares about Israel whose reputation and career could be destroyed by a trial in the press, not the courts. It may turn out that Larry Franklin simply "mishandled" government documents in the course of routine, perfectly acceptable contacts with Israeli representatives -- a far cry from espionage.
If there is evidence of improper actions by pro-Israel lobbyists and by Israeli officials, the results could badly undercut the good work done by years' worth of pro-Israel activism and fan the fires of anti-Semitism based on the fallacious charge that Israel distorts U.S. policy to serve its own interests.
But even if the charges are quickly revealed as overblown, the fact that they have exploded in the middle of an emotionally charged presidential campaign and as protests proliferate over the Iraq war could adversely affect the Jewish community and Israel. Jewish leaders are worried -- and they are right to be.
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