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Allegations Against Defense Official Roil Washington, Shake Pro-israel Lobby

Allegations that a Pentagon official passed documents to Israel through a pro-Israel lobbying group have shaken Washington and drawn intense attention to the close relationship between the Bush administration and the Jewish state. Reports surfaced last Friday that a Defense Department official was being investigated by the FBI for passing secrets to Israel, and two staffers at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee are accused of serving as intermediaries, receiving the documents from the Pentagon aide and passing them to the Israelis.

Media reports have identified the Pentagon employee as Larry Franklin, but the AIPAC staffers have not been named. Israeli officials and AIPAC both denied the allegations, and Pentagon officials said they believed the investigation was limited in its scope.

The allegations, first reported by CBS News, come just days before Republicans and AIPAC leaders were expected to tout close ties be! tween the United States and Israel at the Republican National Convention in New York.

But the suspicion that Israeli officials gained access to classified information could hurt the close coordination the two countries officially share, and make governmental officials wary of dealing with Israeli representatives.

If found true, the allegations could harm the reputation of AIPAC, considered the most successful foreign policy lobbying group in Washington, with numerous advocates in Congress and in the American Jewish community.

Jewish officials were downplaying the story Sunday, standing behind AIPAC and suggesting that business at the Republican convention would proceed as normal, with more than a dozen Republican legislators and party leaders expected to address closed-door AIPAC forums.

At AIPAC’s first event Saturday evening, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.) addressed the crowd as scheduled, and New York Gov. George Pataki (R) made a ! surprise appearance, saying he wanted to show his solidarity with the pro-Israel lobby.

Other lawmakers and Jewish leaders were contacting AIPAC staff to find out how they could help or express their support.

“All of us will go on with our business,” said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. “There is no change because of this story, and we should wait to see what happens in the coming days.”

The charges evoked memories of Jonathan Pollard, the American Jew and former Navy intelligence officer who was sentenced to life in prison in 1987 for spying for Israel.

While some American Jewish leaders now work to free Pollard, his spying for the Jewish state temporarily strained relations between the allies. It also placed Jewish officials in the United States government under the microscope for suspicions of dual loyalty.

Franklin is not Jewish, however, and no motive for his alleged actions has been presented.

Israeli sources said Saturday that Frankli! n’s work relations with Israeli officials did not exceed the boundaries of accepted diplomatic contact, the Israeli daily Ha’aretz reported. The sources said checks conducted over the weekend negated all possibility of espionage or unacceptable conduct and that no Israeli had received classified information from Franklin.

Because of the impact the Pollard case had on U.S.-Israeli relations, Israel made a deep strategic decision afterward not to spy in the United States, Israeli officials told JTA.

No arrests in the investigation have been made, but according to the CBS News report the FBI has wiretaps, undercover surveillance and photography that show the exchange of a classified document regarding the formulation of Bush administration policy for Iran.

Israel has grown increasingly concerned about Iran, with officials saying the country is a larger threat to the Jewish state than the former Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein. Israel has stressed the threat Iran’s n! uclear weapons program poses to the stability of the Middle East.

Franklin is a desk officer on Iran within the Near East and South Asia bureau at the Pentagon. The division is overseen by Douglas Feith, the undersecretary of defense for policy, who was considered a strong advocate for the Iraq war.

Feith also was one of several Jewish “neo-conservatives” inside the government whom war critics have sought to portray as instigating the war in Iraq.

Sources inside and outside the administration said Franklin was a career official who was close to retirement and not considered a main architect of policy within the office.

According to media reports, some federal officials have suggested that the charges against Franklin may not rise to espionage, and rather may be limited to mishandling or improper use of classified materials, a more common charge.

Reuters quoted one former AIPAC official as saying the group made it a matter of policy to hire former Pentagon staffers to keep Israel informed of U.S. policy.

“It’s a standard ! feature of the lobbying scene,” the staffer said, according to Reuters. “How do you draw the line between a lobbyist briefing and spying? It’s not as clear-cut as it should be.”

Jewish leaders seemed relieved that newspaper stories Sunday suggested the case might not rise to the level of criminal intent, and could instead be focused on the mishandling of documents. Some suggested that because of the close coordination that goes on between U.S. officials and Israelis and American Jewish leaders, it was possible that a barrier to criminal conduct was inadvertently crossed.

“It’s starting to sound more like a case of leaking than a case of spying,” said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League. “Both are violations of trust, but one is serious and one is less serious.”

Federal officials, who have been investigating this case for more than a year, suggest arrests could come as early as next week.

It’s unclear whether any AIPAC staffers could! be charged as well. The organization says it has made information ava ilable to federal investigators, and staff members have been interviewed.

“Any allegation of criminal conduct by AIPAC or our employees is false and baseless,” the pro-Israel lobby said in a statement last Friday. “Neither AIPAC nor any of its employees has violated any laws or rules, nor has AIPAC or its employees ever received information they believed was secret or classified.”

The statement goes on to stress that AIPAC is made up of “proud and loyal U.S. citizens committed to promoting American interests.” The statement was placed on the front page of AIPAC’s Web site Saturday.

David Siegel, spokesman for the Israeli Embassy in Washington, also denied the allegations.

“The United States is Israel’s most cherished friend and ally,” Siegel said in a statement last Friday. “We have a strong, ongoing, working relationship at all levels and in no way would Israel do anything to impair this relationship.”

One AIPAC official said the office conducted a thoro! ugh investigation last Friday after learning of the federal investigation.

Jewish leaders questioned the motives behind the leak to the media last Friday, and the timing.

“This thing smells,” one former senior AIPAC staffer told JTA. “The Pentagon does not need AIPAC to carry messages to the Israeli government for them. They have continuous high-level channels of communication.”

Israeli officials in Washington say they were not officially approached by investigators in this case, and learned of it through media accounts.

The Bush administration has touted its strong record on Israel and coordination with the Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s government. The administration is credited with shutting out Palestinian Authority president Yasser Arafat and for saying that Palestinian refugees do not have the right to return to Israel. In recent weeks, administration officials also have moderated their opposition to some Israeli settlement construction in the West Bank.

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