The president of AIPAC has resigned after revelations of a taped telephone conversation in which he falsely claimed to have cut a secret deal with the secretary of state and to have influenced the Clinton campaign on prospective Cabinet appointments.
The tape was made without the knowledge of the AIPAC president, David Steiner, and was sent to The Washington Times, which published excerpts of it in a story that appeared Wednesday.
The incident is an embarrassing blow to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, which has been attacked in the news media over the years for being politically heavy-handed. The powerful pro-Israel lobby also has been stung in recent months by charges from Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin that its confrontational efforts to secure loan guarantees for Israel were counterproductive.
According to a confidential memo obtained by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency that was sent Tuesday to AIPAC’s executive committee, Steiner received a telephone call about two weeks ago from a man who identified himself as a “major potential political activist.”
In an apparent effort to “encourage him to become more involved,” Steiner told the caller stories about his own political involvement and “presented an inflated characterization of his contacts and dealings with major public figures,” according to the memo.
The AIPAC president claimed to have had a meeting with James Baker while he was secretary of state that Steiner said secured a $1 billion strategic cooperation deal for Israel. He also said he had negotiated with the Clinton campaign about who would become secretary of state in a Clinton administration.
Steiner was unaware the conversation was being taped by the caller, a New York businessman named Harry Katz. Katz has been described in media reports as a man with a propensity to sue individuals and Jewish agencies.
After Steiner learned a tape of the conversation had been sent to The Washington Times, he issued a resignation statement, dated Oct. 30. In it, he apologized to Clinton, Baker and AIPAC, calling it “a difficult and painful moment.”
“In an effort to encourage and impress what I thought was a potential political activist,” he said, “I made statements which went beyond overzealousness and exaggeration and were simply and totally untrue.”
“There were no ‘deals’ with Secretary Baker, nor any negotiations with the Clinton campaign, as I described,” he wrote. “I know that many people in politics exaggerate their closeness to and influence with politicians to impress others, but what I did was wrong.”
“I deeply believe that the relationship between the United States and Israel serves the highest interests of both democracies, and I intended to do nothing to harm this relationship,” Steiner said.
AIPAC waited several days to go public with the development, in order to alert Baker, who is now White House chief of staff, and the Clinton campaign.
“AIPAC played no role in the negotiations over military assistance to Israel that he described,” said AIPAC spokeswoman Toby Dershowitz. “These were initiated by the meeting between Israeli Prime Minister Rabin and President Bush in Kennebunkport in August, and continued to completion by Israeli and American negotiating teams during September and October.” She added: “On no occasion has the Clinton campaign engaged in discussions with Mr. Steiner or AIPAC about personnel matters at any level.”
Mayer Mitchell, chairman of AIPAC’s board, and Tom Dine, its executive director, paid tribute to Steiner in their memo to the executive committee.
“We know that you will, upon hearing this news, share anguish for a colleague who has given everything to our cause and this organization, a man of the highest character who, during a period of physical stress, made a very human error.”
Steiner had major heart surgery in June and “subsequently has been under great physical stress,” they wrote.
They also called on the executive committee to look ahead, noting the challenge of a new U.S. administration and the address Rabin is scheduled to deliver at AIPAC’s policy conference in Washington in March.
This is a “body blow to a very important institution in Jewish life that has been under attack,” said a prominent Jewish leader. “What makes it more tragic is that it was self-inflicted.”