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Just in time for the annual AIPAC conference, the US Justice Department announced last week it is dismissing its charges against former AIPAC staffers Keith Weissman and Steve Rosen. Their prosecution, and what it exposed about the nature of AIPAC, and the position of Israel, and of pro-Israel Jews and non-Jews in America must serve as a cautionary tale for Israel and its American supporters.
A brief summary of the now five-year-old affair is in order. In August 2004, just as the question of how the Bush administration should contend with Iran's nuclear weapons program was becoming the issue of the day, CBS news reported on an "Israeli spy scandal." According to that report, AIPAC lobbyists were working with a pro-Israel, neo-conservative hawk in the Pentagon and the Israeli embassy in Washington to try to force the Bush administration to adopt a more confrontational policy towards Iran due both to its nuclear weapons development program and to its central role in fomenting the insurgency in Iraq.
At the time, as a New York Times report noted, the Bush administration had yet to adopt a clear policy on Iran. As one government source told the newspaper, "We have an ad hoc policy [on Iran] that we're making up as we go along." The idea behind the AIPAC spy scandal story then was that these nefarious pro-Israel forces were being used by Israel to compel the Bush administration to adopt Jerusalem's preferred policy on Iran.
The truth however, was far less impressive. In the event, Rosen and Weissman were approached by Pentagon analyst Larry Franklin (who happens to be Catholic, not Jewish). Franklin asked them to use their connections with the National Security Council to make then-president George W. Bush aware of Iran's central role in the insurgency in Iraq and of its swift progress in its nuclear program. He felt that this information was being obfuscated by the CIA and the State Department in their briefings to the president.
After that meeting, Franklin was approached by the FBI, which had been wiretapping his conversations, and was compelled to entrap Rosen and Weissman in a sting operation. He was given false information relating to a supposed imminent threat to the lives of Israeli agents operating in Iraqi Kurdistan which he passed to Weissman and Rosen, who in turn, passed it on to Naor Gillon then serving at the Israeli embassy. It was this incident that spurred the CBS report and the accusations that Weissman and Rosen were Israeli spies.
ROSEN AND WEISSMAN were indicted under the 1918 Espionage Act - a law that had not been enforced since World War I - and accused of "conspiracy to communicate national defense information to people not entitled to receive it." The maximum penalty for this offense is ten years in prison.
Franklin, for his part was sentenced to 12 years in prison for mishandling classified information. For similar offenses, prominent Democrats like former national security advisor Sandy Berger and former CIA director John Deutsch were dispatched with misdemeanor convictions and slaps on their wrists from friendly prosecutors. Franklin's lawyer is now seeking to overturn his conviction.
The decision to prosecute Weissman, Rosen and Franklin was clearly political - and deeply discriminatory. In speaking to Franklin and acting on the information he provided them, Weissman and Rosen did nothing that lobbyists and journalists in Washington don't do every day of the year. By selectively choosing to enforce an arguably defunct law against them - and against no one else - the FBI and the Justice Department and whatever forces in the State Department the CIA and elsewhere that supported them made clear that the US government will treat pro-Israel forces in Washington differently than everyone else.
This politically motivated prosecution was wildly successful. No, it didn't lead to Rosen and Weissman being convicted of anything. But that was never the point. The prosecutors - and those faceless bureaucrats pulling the strings - managed to drag not only Weissman's and Rosen's names through the mud for five years, they managed to cast a pall of criminality and treason on the whole pro-Israel community and the hawks in the Pentagon that tended to agree with them on matters of national security policy.
And having accomplished this goal, the forces behind the Rosen-Weissman-Franklin persecutions went on to intimidate AIPAC into firing Rosen and Weissman. In an act of disgraceful cowardice, AIPAC not only fired the men, they refused to pay their legal fees and so cast them adrift as millions of dollars in legal bills began piling up.
AIPAC was not alone in abandoning these men to their fates. Aside from some lone voices - almost never heard above a whisper - the organized American Jewish community lost its voice when it came to the AIPAC scandal. While behind closed doors everyone was quick to shake their heads and acknowledge the obvious fact that these men were being railroaded in a scandalous abuse of legal power, in public everyone was mute. There were no angry letters to the White House and the Attorney General's office demanding an explanation of how these prosecutions came about. There were no demonstrations outside the Justice Department demanding that the charges be dismissed. There was no media campaign to discredit the decision to abuse legal tools to weaken the pro-Israel community and specifically, to weaken the anti-Iranian hawks in the US. There was silence.
In a perfectly fair world, where people care about both process and outcome, the human rights and specifically the first amendment crowd at places like the American Civil Liberties Union and likeminded institutions, could have been counted on to stand up and denounce the abuse of executive power that stood at the heart of the AIPAC scandal. After all, in transferring a classified memo on Iran to Weissman and Rosen, Franklin was doing something that the ACLU generally supports.
At one of its major 2008 conferences, for instance, the ACLU invited Daniel Ellsberg, the former Rand Corporation official who leaked the top secret Pentagon Papers regarding US involvement in Vietnam to The New York Times in 1971 to serve as it keynote speaker. Both in photocopying the documents and in transferring them to The New York Times, Ellsberg was committing serious criminal offenses. And yet, because he was doing so to advance the cause of the anti-war movement, groups like the ACLU worked to discredit his prosecution. Charges against Ellsberg were dropped in 1973. Ever since, he has enjoyed hero's status in left-wing, first amendment circles in the US.
But then, apparently, process is not important. For like the organized American Jewish community, the ACLU, The New York Times, The Washington Post and all the other outspoken champions of free speech were silent on - if not supportive of - the Justice Department's case against Franklin and against Rosen and Weissman.
THIS ENTIRE STORY, in all of its disparate parts, holds some very sad lessons for supporters of Israel in the US and beyond as well as for the government of Israel. First, AIPAC's cowardly decision to abandon Weissman and Rosen and the willingness of the overwhelming majority of the organized Jewish community to mutely endorse the move exposes an unpleasant truth about the nature of the American Jewish community. Simply stated, the majority of American Jews are either indifferent to the treatment of Israel and its supporters, or are too frightened to express their concerns.
Second, the fact that the AIPAC scandal unfolded during the Bush administration's tenure shows that even when administrations friendly to Israel are in office, a persistent, powerful group of bureaucrats in the federal government remains ready and able to persecute pro-Israel activists and policymakers. Moreover, members of this group are willing to abuse executive power to achieve their aim of weakening the standing of both Israel and its supporters in the US capital.
One of the disturbing aspects of the AIPAC scandal was the readiness of pro-Palestinian Jewish organizations like the Israel Policy Forum and J Street to defend the persecution. As James Kirchick from The New Republic noted over the weekend, M.J. Rosenberg, the Director of Policy Analysis for the IPF, wrote recently that "as a guy on trial for espionage," Rosen had no right to point out that Charles Freeman, US President Barack Obama's initial choice to serve as Director of the National Intelligence Council, had a record of egregiously anti-Israel behavior and action. What the behavior of the likes of Rosenberg shows is that anti-Israel forces in the federal bureaucracy can depend on having an anti-Israel American Jewish amen corner backing any decision they take to persecute Israel's supporters.
The silence of the human rights and free speech crowd also provides food for thought. The fourth lesson of the AIPAC affair is that Israel and its supporters can expect to receive absolutely no backing from this policy community. As is the case with the US feminist movement's silence on the plight of women in the Muslim world, and the US human rights community's silence on the plight of human rights activists in places like Iran and Syria, Israel can expect that the American Left - both Jewish and non-Jewish - will be silent about any actions taken against the human rights of Israelis and the civil rights of Israel's supporters in the US.
It is important that these lessons be properly understood by pro-Israel activists in the US. And it is imperative that they be internalized by the Netanyahu government as it crafts its strategy for contending with an openly hostile Obama administration in the months and years to come.
Many in Jerusalem expressed their disappointment that Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu decided not to travel to Washington this week to participate in the AIPAC conference but rather delayed his visit to the US for two weeks to better prepare for his meeting with Obama. But what the AIPAC scandal shows is that it may be advantageous that Netanyahu's first visit to Washington as premier not be conducted as part of the AIPAC conference.
The weaknesses of the pro-Israel community - and first and foremost of AIPAC - which the Rosen-Weissman-Franklin affair exposed show that it is unwise for Israel to rely on pro-Israel organizations to sell its policies to the American people and their elected officials. These groups cannot be trusted to help out in a crisis because they may simply not care that much about Israel's security or because they are too frightened of being persecuted to stick their necks out.
Rather than focus his efforts on rallying the likes of AIPAC, Netanyahu would be better served to bring his message directly to the American people. Only by garnering wide-scale, popular, grassroots support for a strong US-Israel alliance will Netanyahu have a chance of maintaining strong ties with Washington under the Obama administration and beyond.