Pro-Israel Lobbying Group Holds Meeting Amid Worries

By Jeffrey H. Birnbaum
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 19, 2005

The American Israel Public Affairs Committee is accustomed to getting its way. The powerful lobby has run smoothly and quietly for half a century, successfully championing the close ties between Israel and the United States.

But this is a different time. On the eve of the organization's annual convention, traditionally a self-congratulatory event, many AIPAC supporters are wringing their hands over a federal probe into allegations that two of the group's employees may have passed classified information to Israel.

"In my heart of hearts I believe that AIPAC will continue to be strong; it's not a fly-by-night operation," said Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism. "But this has obviously been a blow. As long as this remains unresolved, with these charges swirling around, the unease will continue."

"I genuinely hope that this does not impact the effectiveness of the organization; its role is too important," agreed Neal Sher, a former executive director of AIPAC. "But one has to be concerned. Uncertainty is very problematic."

Both men, and the pro-Israel Jewish community in general, worry that the disclosures could weaken AIPAC and its efforts to promote U.S. support for the Jewish state.

Such doubts are unusual for the organization, which has long been counted as one of the country's most effective lobbying groups. It ranked consistently among the five most influential interest groups in Fortune magazine's poll of Washington insiders (alongside such better-known lobbies as AARP and the National Rifle Association). A recent survey by the National Journal ranked AIPAC No. 2 among Democratic lawmakers and No. 4 among Republicans.

Money is the main reason. AIPAC takes pains to say that it does not contribute funds directly to candidates for federal office, and that it does not rate or endorse them. It constantly updates its 100,000 members on lawmakers' views of Israel and maintains close ties with a network of wealthy individuals and political action committees that regularly pour millions of dollars into the political process.

With a $40 million annual budget, regional offices around the country, and a well-regarded staff of lobbyists and researchers in the capital, it helps persuade the U.S. government to continue sending billions of dollars in aid to Israel each year and to keep a steadfast alliance with that nation.

Proof of its sway will be on display beginning Sunday, when some of the biggest names in politics and foreign policy will be featured at AIPAC's annual policy conference.

About 5,000 of its members will throng the Washington Convention Center to hear speeches by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, the chairmen of both major U.S. political parties and the top leaders of both chambers of Congress. The banquet Monday night will be attended by half the Senate and a third of the House, AIPAC aides said.

Principals of the pro-Israel lobby are eager to focus attention on these high-profile guests. But a growing number of Jewish American activists are worried about the recent controversy. Last month, AIPAC dismissed two senior staffers amid an FBI investigation into whether they passed classified U.S. data to Israel.

Lawyers for the two men -- policy director Steve Rosen and senior analyst Keith Weissman -- have denied that they were involved in any wrongdoing, and a source close to AIPAC said that the government has informed the organization that it is not the target of the probe.

But the investigation is continuing. Earlier this month, a Defense Department policy analyst, Lawrence Franklin, was charged with disclosing two years ago classified information related to potential attacks on U.S. forces in Iraq. Court documents and law enforcement sources said Franklin made the unauthorized disclosure to two pro-Israel lobbyists while having lunch at a restaurant in Arlington in 2003.

The documents did not identify the recipients of the information, but law enforcement sources said they were two top AIPAC officials, whom they identified as Rosen and Weissman.

For more than two decades, Rosen has been a mainstay of AIPAC and the architect of the group's ever-increasing clout. Though Rosen was listed below Executive Director Howard Kohr on AIPAC's organizational chart, people familiar with AIPAC's history say that Kohr is a protege of Rosen's and got that job with his help. Kohr declined to be interviewed about Rosen.

"He [Rosen] is a quiet guy," said M.J. Rosenberg, director of policy analysis for the Israel Policy Forum, another pro-Israel group, and a former AIPAC employee. "But everyone knows he's the brains behind the outfit."

AIPAC aides say that is an exaggeration, but several acknowledge that Rosen's absence at the upcoming conference will be felt. A former AIPAC executive joked that the unofficial theme of the conference this year will be "Steve who?" -- a reference to the group's effort to distance itself from the man who once was one of its most prominent officials.

If there is any damage to AIPAC's image, spokesmen assert that it has not yet become evident. The group's fundraising is up 20 percent over last year, its membership is at record levels and attendance at the policy conference will be at least triple the turnout of four years ago.

AIPAC's board is also likely to strongly endorse the remaining top executives of the organization. "We are very pleased with our leadership. We have an incredible team led by Howard Kohr and we hope and expect he will continue to lead the organization for a long time to come," said Bernice Manocherian, AIPAC's president.

Manocherian added that, at AIPAC, "our eye is on the ball. We're focused on our work."

But no one doubts that the Rosen affair has been a distraction.

"AIPAC is taking this investigation very seriously," said Hannah Rosenthal, a former executive at the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, and now executive director of the Chicago Foundation for Women. "There may be a short-term bumpy road."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company