NEW YORK (Aug. 30)
American Jewish officials say they don’t think an FBI investigation of a Pentagon staffer accused of passing classified U.S. government documents to the pro-Israel lobby will result in espionage charges — but they worry that the affair still may damper their efforts on behalf of Israel, at least in the short term. Larry Franklin, who is not Jewish, is accused of passing classified information to American Israel Public Affairs Committee officials, who may have passed the information along to Israel. Questions of what will emerge from the year-long investigation overshadowed a salute to Jewish Republicans on Sunday at the start of the party’s national convention in New York.
Jewish organizational leaders said they don’t think charges will be filed against the two AIPAC officials, whom the Jerusalem Post identified as Steven Rosen and Keith Weissman. AIPAC would not confirm the officials’ identity.
Organizational leaders also said! that in the long run they don’t think the case will disrupt pro-Israel lobbying efforts or their overall influence in Washington.
“These allegations are outrageous as well as baseless,” AIPAC President Bernice Manocherian told the crowd at Sunday’s Jewish Republican event. “They will not dissuade us from exercising our right as American citizens to be involved in the political process.”
Jewish officials noted that they had been through more difficult periods — most notably the 1985 arrest of Jonathan Pollard, a Jew who worked as a U.S. Navy analyst and confessed to spying for Israel — yet had retained their clout in Washington.
Privately, however, some Jewish organizational leaders were concerned that the investigation would hamper their work in the short term, with peers questioning their loyalty and adversaries gaining new ammunition to attack them.
“I believe they will be exonerated, but the damage is done by having it on the front page of all the news! papers and having the questions out there,” said one Jewish leader, wh o spoke on condition of anonymity. “They will question what Jewish organizations are doing and what their real agenda is.”
In Israel, media were filled with the latest news on the investigation, but Israeli officials insisted their hands were clean.
Israeli diplomats and officials tried to downplay the story, saying it is mostly a question of internal U.S. political intrigue. Natan Sharansky, the minister of Diaspora affairs, said there was no truth to the allegation of spying and suggested the story was borne of an internal rift between the Pentagon and the CIA.
Intelligence on Iran is of particular interest to Israel because officials fear the Islamic republic is trying to develop nuclear arms. Iran also supports Hezbollah, which continues to try to attack Israel from the Lebanese border and is reportedly also active in the West Bank.
Yet after the Pollard affair, Israeli officials say strict orders were put in place against any form of spying in the United ! States.
Israel’s ambassador to the United States, Danny Ayalon, told the Yediot Achronot newspaper that there is no truth to allegations of espionage.
“For information on U.S. policy toward Iran we do not need assessments from a mid-level intelligence official in the Pentagon,” Ayalon said. “I am in constant contact with Condoleezza Rice, the national security adviser, and other senior officials.”
A high-ranking official in Israel’s Foreign Ministry, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that an Israeli diplomat accused of meeting with Franklin had acted correctly.
“What we have here is a diplomat doing his job. This is simply a story without a story,” the official said.
AIPAC officials and other Jewish organizational leaders were rallying behind the pro-Israel lobby Sunday, publicly questioning the motives behind the leak to CBS News last Friday and the timing of the story.
Jews in New York speculated the leak was an effort to hurt “neo-conservativ! es” in the Defense Department who were architects for the Iraq war and have supported efforts to protect Israel.
Two Jews in high positions in the Defense Department, Deputy Secretary Paul Wolfowitz and Undersecretary Douglas Feith, have been named repeatedly in press accounts about the case, though the man accused of passing the information is a lower level officer who worked for Feith.
AIPAC leaders said they believe the controversy will make the organization stronger in the end. Advocates enraged by the erroneous charges will be more prone to support the organization and its efforts, they said.
They pointed to the fact that no lawmakers or public officials have cancelled plans to speak to AIPAC leaders in New York this week, and that New York’s Republican governor, George Pataki, made a surprise appearance at a private event last Saturday to show solidarity with the Israel lobby.
But Jewish officials wondered whether they might be left out in the cold for a while.
“People in New York and Washington may end up understandin! g, and it may not hurt our ability to do business in 10 years,” one Jewish official said. “But in the short term, I don’t see how it can’t.”
The future depends in large part on what happens next in the federal investigation. Initial reports suggested a sensational story, but since then AIPAC advocates have been heartened as subsequent reports suggest the case might not rise to the level of espionage, and Franklin may be charged only with mishandling classified information.
Later reports even have suggested that Franklin might not be charged at all.
Jewish officials said the Pollard case immediately came to mind when they heard the news Friday. But they universally suggested that this case would not rise to that level.
For one, no one has raised the question of Israel giving money to Franklin or others for information. In addition, Franklin is accused of passing along a draft policy directive on U.S. efforts against Iran, not information that could have jeopa! rdized American lives.
A high-ranking Israeli military official wh o served in Washington said he had met with Franklin several times and doubted he had been involved in anything improper.
“All of the meetings with Franklin were professional and to the point,” the official, who did not want his name used, told Yediot Achronot. “He would update us or we would update him. The meetings would take place at different venues — at the Pentagon, at restaurants and occasionally at the embassy. We are talking about meetings that are very accepted in the world of diplomacy, where people exchange shared updates. We are not talking about state secrets, but of general security information.”
For now, Jewish officials hope they can keep the community focused on the New York convention, and hope the issue will leave the front page.
“Until the matter is resolved, as I think it will be, there will be some hesitation” to work with the Jewish community, one Jewish official said.
JTA Correspondent Dina Kraft contributed to this story from Tel Av! iv.