Trial Unnerves Some U.S. Jewish Leaders

As Ex-Lobbyists of Pro-Israel Group Face Court, Article Queries Sway on Mideast Policy

Jay Solomon - The Wall Street Journal - Page A4 - April 14, 2006

WASHINGTON -- The coming trial of two former representatives of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee for alleged violations of the Espionage Act is fueling concern among Jewish leaders that Israel and the Jewish-American community increasingly are being blamed for the Bush administration's troubles in the Middle East.

The trial comes amid a furor sparked last month by an article by two American academics that argues pro-Israel interest groups have undercut the U.S.'s standing in the Middle East by promoting a policy line too close to Tel Aviv's. They argue that the U.S. is too aligned with Israel in its position on the Palestinian question, weapons proliferation in the Middle East, and diplomatic ties with a number of Arab states. Meanwhile, leaders of such groups as the American Jewish Congress and the Anti-Defamation League say they're tracking global media that they believe disproportionately focuses on the role Jewish officials inside the Bush administration played in building the case for war in Iraq.

A number of prominent strategists overseeing the Iraq invasion during President Bush's first term are Jews, such as former Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz and the Pentagon's then-No. 3 civilian official, Douglas Feith. Although they have been singled out for particular criticism, Jewish leaders say critics of the war often selectively bypass the scores of non-Jewish officials who also played central roles in developing the Iraq policy.

"Now you have an Iraq war that Americans are turning against, and you have people saying it's all a Jewish conspiracy," says Jack Rosen, president of the American Jewish Congress, which promotes religious tolerance and the rights of the state of Israel. "But look at President Clinton's team: You had many Jews who aggressively pushed for peace in the Middle East. But these same critics don't see this as part of the same conspiracy."

Despite the criticism of the pro-Israel lobby, many Jewish leaders in America say they don't believe their community ultimately will be blamed for the war in Iraq and unrest elsewhere in the Middle East. They cite polls showing that America's support for Israel has grown in recent years, and note that many indicators suggest that anti-Semitism in America is declining. While certain officials who are Jewish may be facing criticism, these leaders say, they don't see a wider threat.

"I don't see a gathering storm" against the Jewish community, says David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism in Washington. "Most people seem to be focusing on individuals rather than a conspiracy."

The trial of the former AIPAC lobbyists, Steven J. Rosen and Keith Weissman, is scheduled to begin next month. The two men are charged under the Espionage Act with receiving and disseminating classified information provided by a former Pentagon Middle East analyst. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley are among the witnesses Messrs. Rosen and Weissman's defense team has indicated it may call.

The Justice Department's indictment details how Messrs. Rosen and Weissman allegedly sought to promote a hawkish U.S. policy toward Iran by trading information and favors with a number of senior U.S. officials. Lawrence Franklin, the former Pentagon official, has pleaded guilty to misusing classified information. Mr. Franklin was charged with orally passing on information about a draft National Security Council paper about Iran to the two lobbyists, according to people familiar with the case, as well as other classified information. Mr. Franklin was sentenced in December to nearly 13 years in prison, but his sentence could be reduced, depending on the testimony he provides for the prosecution.

Lawyers for Messrs. Rosen and Weissman, as well as many Jewish leaders, say the actions of the former AIPAC employees were no different from how thousands of Washington lobbyists work. They say the indictment marks the first time in U.S. history that American citizens -- outside government employees or contractors -- have been charged with receiving and disseminating state secrets in conversations. In court filings, the defense team argues that their clients couldn't have known that the information they received was classified, and they say a conviction in the case could cast a chill over the U.S. media and political process.

The actions of the men are "what members of the media, members of the Washington policy community, lobbyists and members of congressional staffs do perhaps hundreds of times per day," the legal team wrote this month in a brief seeking to have the case dismissed. "These meetings are a vital and necessary part of how our government and society function."

Several members of Congress have expressed concern about the case since it broke in 2004, fearing that the Justice Department may be targeting pro-Israel lobbying groups, such as AIPAC. These officials say they're eager to see the legal process run its course, but are concerned about the lack of transparency in the case.

"The administration hasn't been forthcoming on this case," said Lale Mamaux, a spokeswoman for Democratic Rep. Robert Wexler of Florida. Mr. Wexler wrote to the Bush administration seeking more information on the AIPAC case when it first broke.

The trial is scheduled to begin just weeks after publication of an article on the pro-Israel lobby by John Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago and Stephen Walt of Harvard University. In the paper, titled "The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy," which was posted on the Web site of Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government, the authors argue that a bloc of pro-Israel interest groups, including Jewish-Americans and Christian evangelicals, have lobbied to align U.S. foreign policy with Israel's. They write that this trend has accelerated under the Bush administration, where neoconservative strategists in the Pentagon and White House have been ideologically aligned with hawks in Israel. (Read the paper2.)

Messrs. Mearsheimer and Walt argue that rather than enhancing national security, America's ties to Israel have escalated terrorist attacks against the U.S., undermined moves toward democracy in the Middle East, and advanced a global race to acquire weapons of mass destruction. "Other special-interest groups have managed to skew U.S. foreign policy in directions they favored, but no lobby has managed to divert U.S. foreign policy as far from what the American national interest would otherwise suggest," their paper says.

The authors write that the broader Jewish community in America appeared to be generally against the invasion of Iraq. But they emphasize that many pro-Israel lobbying groups and U.S. officials close to Israel championed the conflict. "The war was due in large part to the [pro-Israel] Lobby's influence, especially the neoconservatives within it." Reaction from the Jewish community and from many in the mainstream press has been strong and swift against the academics. Opinion pieces in the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal have attacked alleged factual and historical inaccuracies in the piece. Many Jewish leaders say the article rehashes centuries-old conspiracy theories about Jewish cabals with dual loyalties. They say similar sentiment arose during the first Gulf War, when some critics of the conflict saw it as designed to protect Israel.

Still, Jewish leaders say that such attacks traditionally have come from members of the extreme left or right wings, and that they are particularly concerned to see them presented by academics from such pre-eminent American institutions. "The notion that there's a so-called Jewish cabal continues to surface," said David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee. "That it had currency in Czarist Russia was, tragically, par for the course. ... But at Harvard or Chicago in 2006? That's truly mind-boggling."

In their article, Messrs. Mearsheimer and Walt emphasize that the pro-Israel lobby isn't a cabal or conspiracy, but rather a loose coalition of individuals and organizations that operates in much the same way that other U.S. interest groups do. Mr. Walt also said in an interview that the main aim of the article was to stimulate debate on an important foreign-policy issue.

Harvard, which left the article on the Web site but removed the Kennedy School's logo from it, has stressed that the paper reflects the authors' personal views and not that of the university. In a statement, Harvard said that "the Kennedy school does not restrict, interfere with, or take a position on the research conclusions reached by individual faculty members."

Trying to stifle a debate on Washington's relationship with Israel, or the pro-Israel lobby itself, could prove damaging to the Jewish community longer term. "It's bad for Jews in America if it's seen like you can't talk about this one specific issue," says M.J. Rosenberg, who heads the Washington office of the Israel Policy Forum.

  • See Also: The Franklin/AIPAC Spy Case Page