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After Departure of Key Aipac Man, Some Ask Who Will Guide Group Now

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Not so long ago, the word on Steve Rosen, policy director for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, was that he was so knowledgeable that he trained the group’s board members in the ways of Washington. In his 23 years with the pro-Israel lobbying powerhouse, Rosen’s encyclopedic knowledge of Middle East geopolitics and Beltway power politics nurtured AIPAC’s lay leadership and guided its policies.

Now that the same leadership has fired Rosen because, AIPAC says, of information arising out of an FBI investigation into alleged mishandling of classified Pentagon documents, the question is raised: Who will guide AIPAC now?

Rosen’s imprint remains in substantial ways: Iran’s threat to Israel, his top priority in recent years, is to be the centerpiece of this year’s AIPAC’s policy conference, which begins May 22. The conference will feature a walk-through exhibit on how close Iran is to developing a nuclear weapon.

Yet tactically Rosen’s departure already is being felt as AIPAC returns to its roots, working Capitol Hill and moving away from the executive branch lobbying that was emblematic of Rosen’s approach.

Significantly, the only on-the-record statement proffered by AIPAC since JTA revealed last week that AIPAC had fired Rosen and Keith Weissman, its senior Iran analyst, who also has been targeted by the FBI, emphasizes congressional lobbying.

“With growing membership, record attendance at events around the country, and continued successes on Capitol Hill, AIPAC is energized and focused on the future,” spokesman Josh Block said.

Some of the group’s recent successes on the Hill include backing Congress’ approval of $2.6 billion in foreign aid for this year, extending the duration of Israel’s loan guarantees and attaching strict oversight guidelines to $200 million in assistance to the Palestinian Authority.

The Senate also unanimously passed a bill expanding homeland security cooperation between Israel and the United States. The House of Representatives passed a resolution urging the European Union to put Hezbollah on the E.U. terrorist list and overwhelmingly passed two resolutions condemning Syria for its occupation of Lebanon and continued human-rights violations.

A key House panel has approved the Iran Freedom and Support Act, which has garnered more than 155 co-sponsors in less than three months since its introduction.

AIPAC’s grass-roots supporters have sought assurances that the FBI investigation won’t impinge on the lobby’s effectiveness. AIPAC hosted a conference call last week for Jewish leaders to address the revelation that Rosen and Weissman had been fired. The key message: AIPAC as an organization was not the target of the FBI probe.

A measure of AIPAC’s determination to reassure its base is its recent willingness to go on the record about its Capitol Hill successes, a sharp reversal of a longstanding policy to play down AIPAC’s influence.

AIPAC officials say the grass roots are solidly on board. AIPAC expects 5,000 people at the policy conference, which culminates with a day of show-of-strength lobbying on the Hill. The number is commensurate with previous conferences, AIPAC officials said.

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon are slated to address the conference, a show of support from both governments. A wide list of congressional leaders, including Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), also will be featured.

Officials say that financial contributions continue to grow, and that 5,000 people have attended AIPAC events across the country in the past five weeks.

Off the Hill — especially at the State Department and the Pentagon — Rosen’s departure is expected to diminish AIPAC’s Washington visibility.

“Steve Rosen is not a politically known Hill quantity,” one former AIPAC staffer said. “But he was very well known in the State Department, Pentagon and Israeli Embassy.”

Still, lower visibility in those areas might not be a bad thing for now. It was precisely the relationship between Rosen and Weissman and a Pentagon Iran analyst, Larry Franklin, that precipitated the FBI’s investigation.

Sources say the FBI moved against AIPAC after FBI agents observed Franklin exchanging information with Rosen and Weissman at a restaurant in Arlington, Va., in 2003. It’s not clear whether the agents were targeting Franklin or the AIPAC staffers.

However, several reports subsequently said that the FBI threatened Franklin with prosecution unless he mounted a sting against the two AIPAC staffers, giving them false information about an imminent threat to alleged Israeli agents in Kurdistan.

Once Rosen and Weissman relayed that information to Israel, according to those accounts, the FBI moved in, confiscating files from their offices in August and December. Franklin since has returned to work for the Defense Department, albeit in a nonsensitive post.

After the August raid, and again in December, AIPAC stood squarely behind the two men. A rift began to show around January, about the time several top staffers were testifying before a federal grand jury convened by Paul McNulty, the U.S. attorney for eastern Virginia. That was when AIPAC placed Rosen and Weissman on paid leave.

The rift was revealed to be final last week. After prodding by JTA, lawyers for Rosen and Weissman issued the following statement: “Steve Rosen and Keith Weissman have not violated any U.S. law or AIPAC policy. Contrary to press accounts, they have never solicited, received or passed on any classified documents. They carried out their job responsibilities solely to serve AIPAĆs goal of strengthening the U.S.-Israel relationship.”

It was the first on-the-record statement to come from the pair’s lawyers, Abbe Lowell and John Nassikas; in the past, all such statements have come from AIPAC and its lawyers. It also was the first statement to suggest that Weissman and Rosen had been accused of violating AIPAC policy.

Within hours, AIPAC countered with its own statement.

“The statement made by Rosen and Weissman represents solely their view of the facts. The action that AIPAC has taken was done in consultation with counsel after careful consideration of recently learned information and the conduct AIPAC expects of its employees,” an AIPAC statement said.

AIPAC would not detail the new information.

Nothing in the statements from either side suggested that action by McNulty was imminent.

Former AIPAC staffers say there are good and bad things about Rosen’s departure. With Rosen pegged by those staffers as a “loose cannon,” some hope the organization can become more focused without his pervasive presence.

“He was a brilliant bureaucratic infighter,” one former staffer said. “He knew how to do the little things to further his agenda.”

Rosen’s connections with bureaucrats and appointed officials helped AIPAC garner insider information on Middle East policy. Policymakers on the Hill and Jewish donors craved the tidbits Rosen’s operations uncovered, and helped the organization gain a loyal fan base in Washington.

Rosen also crafted strong ties with AIPAC board members, which helped him win internal political battles over the years, former staffers said.

“You can’t look at AIPAC now and say it is successful despite Steve Rosen,” one former staffer said.

Steve Grossman, a former AIPAC president, said Rosen had a “virtually encyclopedic knowledge of the issues.” But he believes the organization has many other professionals who can pick up the mantle.

He said Howard Kohr, AIPAC’s executive director, “has made sure there were a considerable number of people with lots of credibility who are able to step in and do it without losing a beat.”

Former staffers, many of whom did not get along with Rosen, suggested last week that he could try to sabotage AIPAC or the pro-Israel agenda if he is unhappy with his severance settlement from AIPAC. Grossman said he did not believe that was possible.

“Steve’s committed to and personally dedicated to the cause of U.S.-Israeli relations,” Grossman said. “It is such a critical part of his life that I have no concerns at all.”

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