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The annual policy conference of the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), which kicked off on Monday and will feature Prime Minister Ehud Olmert as a keynote speaker on Wednesday, is a premiere event of Washington's political/social world. It's a bold demonstration of pro-Israel Jewish political power by a community no longer ashamed to flex its muscles in public, or cowed by more recent critics who in some cases have resorted to classic anti-Semitic innuendo in accusing it of having too much influence over the capital.
Some 7,000 of the group's 100,000-strong membership are expected to attend, and the list of speakers includes all three current major contenders for the US presidency - Republican Sen. John McCain and Democratic Senators Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton - a truly impressive lineup to corral during the height of a campaign. The conference's agenda will focus on such pressing issues as the Iranian nuclear program, the current Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, and strengthening US-Israeli ties at every level.
Not on the schedule, though, are some pressing matters for AIPAC that bring with them unsettling undercurrents for the organization - developments that pose serious challenges both internally and externally for a organization still regarded as the very model of a modern political advocacy lobby.
Foremost among them is the still looming and oft-delayed "AIPAC trial." It is now more than three years since the FBI arrested AIPAC policy director Steve Rosen and senior analyst Keith Weissman for allegedly receiving classified information relating to Iran from Pentagon analyst Larry Franklin, and passing it on to an official at the Israeli Embassy in Washington.
The case has been highly controversial, not only among AIPAC's supporters in the Jewish community and elsewhere, but with civil rights advocates who believe the Bush Justice Department has gone way over the line in singling out the lobby and prosecuting its officials for information-sharing practices common in Washington.
Initial fears that the Rosen/Weissman case could be political poison for AIPAC have proved unfounded, as it has done little to dent the organization's fundraising abilities or the perception that it remains a major lobbying force in Congress. It remains unclear if the case will ever go to trial, given some pre-trial motion defeats the government has suffered already in court.
But this year, just as AIPAC meets to celebrate, there are new twists to the story. Last month Rosen's attorney, the noted Washington lawyer Abbe Lowell, made a pointed public attack on AIPAC, accusing it of unfairly abandoning his client and Weissman, telling a local radio station he "just would have expected better out of a Jewish organization."
Indeed, AIPAC has never adequately explained why, in April 2005, it summarily fired the accused men rather than providing the two veteran senior employees with a leave of absence, and why it also stopped paying their legal fees (back-tracking only after Rosen and Weissman threatened to sue the organization).
The most commonly circulated explanation given is that the AIPAC leadership was concerned for the organization's reputation if it stuck by Rosen and Weissman, especially after coming under heavy pressure from the Justice Department.
"They played for AIPAC's lawyer about a minute or less of one conversation of many, many conversations and took it out of context, and they scared AIPAC, and AIPAC took its actions," Lowell charged.
The problem, though, is that in this circumstance, the lines may not be clear between the individual interests of the organization's current leadership, and that of AIPAC itself. The individuals in this case are AIPAC executive director Howard Kohr and a handful of other senior officers, who could have found themselves in similar legal jeopardy if the FBI and Justice Department had expanded its investigation into who else knew or approved of Rosen's and Weissman's activities.
In December 2004, the FBI executed its second search of AIPAC's Washington offices, grabbing files and computer drives, while also serving subpoenas requiring grand jury testimony from Kohr, AIPAC managing director Richard Fishman, communications director Renee Rothstein and research director Rafi Danziger.
A court document unsealed last year described a conversation in February 2005 between Lowell and AIPAC lawyer Nathan Lewin, in which the latter suggested that the FBI was in fact looking to expand the investigation if AIPAC did not cut off Rosen and Weissman. Two months later, the pair were fired.
This raises the question: Was the AIPAC executive leadership in their dealings with Rosen and Weissman more concerned with protecting the organization's reputation - or themselves - from legal jeopardy? How does one even begin to draw the lines in such a situation?
"Clearly there is a conflict of interest here," says one Jewish leader who has worked with organization. "Of course, the AIPAC officials always have the fallback of saying they are listening to legal advice. But in this instance, there has to be leadership from the board to override that point of view, and do what is necessary and right by Rosen and Weissman."
It is unlikely, though, that the AIPAC board would do anything besides stand strongly by Kohr in this or any other matter. It's not just that he has proven himself hugely effective in his position - ranked this year in a survey conducted by GQ magazine as no less than the "sixth-most powerful person in Washington." Beyond that is the fact that Kohr owes his position at the top of the AIPAC through the complicated internal politics of the organization that is very much affected by some of its board members.
The specific circumstances date back to the mid-1990s, when the Rabin government's unexpectedly sharp political turn with the signing of the Oslo Accords proved a wrenching policy shift for AIPAC to make after decades of demonizing the PLO and Yasser Arafat. What's more, shortly after taking office, then-prime minister Yitzhak Rabin had blasted the AIPAC leadership in a closed-door meeting in Washington, telling them: "You waged lost battles... You created antagonism... You caused damage to Israel."
In 1994, AIPAC hired as executive director Neal Sher, a former Justice Department official with liberal views compatible with the Rabin government. They were less compatible, though, according to Washington sources, with an influential quartet of AIPAC board members, all former presidents of the organization - Robert Asher, Ed Levy Jr., Meyer Mitchell and Larry Weinberg - said to hold more hawkish views.
In 1996, Sher was suddenly dismissed from his post for reasons still murky, although some sources claim he was forced out by the so-called "gang of four" and replaced by Kohr, who had originally come to AIPAC from the Republican Jewish Committee and thus had a political outlook more to their liking.
Kohr's past partisan GOP links certainly could be counted as an asset during the past eight years, when Republicans controlled the White House, and until recently Congress as well. But his prominent role is one of the reasons AIPAC has increasingly been viewed by some within the American-Jewish community as shading too much to the Right in recent years, especially during a period when successive Israeli governments have strongly supported a two-state solution with the Palestinians.
Attacks from outside the Jewish community, such as the Walt-Mearsheimer report, only serve to strengthen AIPAC's position within it. But an internal ideological backlash is evident in the recent forming of J Street, the new Israel lobbying group that recently sprung up posing itself as a left-leaning alternative to AIPAC.
J Street has a long way to go, though, to come remotely close to AIPAC's influence, and nor is it even clear that the constituency it claims to represent will prove as committed or generous.
The real challenge for AIPAC is more in the winds of general ideological change sweeping the US.
An election next November that only solidifies Democratic control of congress and the power of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi - who is speaking at this AIPAC conference after receiving scattered boos on doing so at last year's event - could well require some adjustment on the organization's part. Needless to say, the same goes even more if Barack Obama should take possession of the White House next January.
At last year's AIPAC conference, Vice President Dick Cheney drew applause in a speech urging the continuation of US military efforts in Iraq (a call Olmert echoed in his remarks, sparking criticism for speaking out on such a partisan American issue). This year, it will undoubtedly be Obama's scheduled appearance on Wednesday that will draw the most media attention.
The question is whether AIPAC - from its grass roots to its highest leadership levels - is ready to listen up and, if necessary come next autumn, move on and adjust itself to a new day in Washington.
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