FBI Affair Costs Lobby Dynamic Director Rosen

By Ori Nir

Published April 29, 2005, issue of April 29, 2005.
  • Print
  • Share Share

WASHINGTON — The FBI investigation of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee has in recent months eroded the reputation and credibility of the powerful pro-Israel lobby, Washington insiders said. But the firing of Steve Rosen, Aipac’s policy director, is the first tangible price — and a very dear one — that the organization is paying as a result of the scandal.

Ironically it is a self-imposed price, which sources close to Aipac described as a damage-control measure aimed at distancing the organization from the scandal. Sources close to Aipac said that for the sake of self-preservation, the group is letting go of its intellectual dynamo and toughest political enforcer, a man who insiders characterize as Aipac’s behind-the-scenes leader.

“It’s hard to imagine Aipac without Steve Rosen,” said David Twersky,

director of international affairs at the American Jewish Congress. “Regardless of one’s judgment on the outcomes, this is the guy who more than anyone else shaped the institution as it currently exists.”

Rosen, who reportedly has been the subject of an FBI probe for allegedly passing documents to an Israeli diplomat in 2003, is widely credited with turning Aipac into America’s most powerful foreign policy lobbying organization and one of the strongest lobbies in Washington. In the 23 years that he spent at the organization, Rosen emerged as a lobbying rainmaker, a Washington fixture who has friends and allies in the most influential positions of America’s policy establishment.

Yet for years, Jewish communal leaders felt uneasy with what they saw as his secretive, Machiavellian mode of operation, as well as with his often confrontational and abrasive demeanor. Last week, when Aipac confirmed that he had been sacked, nobody gloated about his demise, but several Jewish activists were relieved to see him go. “Steve embodies what many don’t like about Aipac: the overreaching in using Jewish power,” one Jewish communal leader said. “He is now the victim of his own overreaching.”

With his sharp analytic skills, his impressive breadth of knowledge and his quirky sense of humor, Rosen created close relationships with both career civil servants and political appointees in Washington’s successive administrations. He perfected what one former colleague characterized as the art of “power schmoozing,” the ability to convince interlocutors that they could always learn new facts or insights from him. These skills were invaluable for Aipac, and therefore for Israel, pro-Israel activists said.

By virtue of his contacts and access, Rosen navigated some of Aipac’s most sensitive and complex advocacy initiatives, whether it was promoting the joint American-Israeli Arrow anti-missile defense system; fortifying the relationship among the United States, Israel and Turkey, or urging a tougher American policy for confronting Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

Recently, Rosen led a semisecret ambitious initiative to establish pro-Israel lobbying organizations in the United Kingdom, where antisemitism and anti-Israel sentiments are rising. Aipac is also working to empower the pro-Israel communities in other European nations, as well as in Canada and Australia.

Inside the organization, it took Rosen several short years to reach the top of the policy-making apparatus and become its de facto chief executive. Aipac executive director Howard Kohr, a Republican, was hired by Rosen years ago to lobby the executive branch. Later he was pushed by Rosen to head the organization. Kohr, whom many characterize as Rosen’s protégé, has seldom challenged Rosen’s decisive steering of the organization’s lobbying policy, according to Aipac insiders.

“It’s bizarre to think of Aipac firing Rosen; it’s like a body deciding to sever its own head,” said a congressional aide who is closely familiar with the pro-Israel lobby.

Rosen, 62, grew up a red-diaper baby in New York. His parents, Rosen tells his friends, were too caught up in issues of the left — such as the Spanish Civil War, organizing unions and McCarthyism — to think about Israel. His passion for the Jewish state emerged when, as a young university professor, he studied Israel’s wars with its Arab neighbors.

He joined Aipac in 1982, after a short career in academia and a stint as an analyst at the California-based RAND Corporation. At the time, Rosen championed the notion that Israel was a first-rate strategic asset to America in the Cold War. That notion, he told his Aipac colleagues, would be most effectively pushed in the White House, the Pentagon and the State Department rather than on Capitol Hill. Soon Rosen turned Aipac’s department of information and research, which he headed, from a branch aimed at serving the lobby’s legislative department to an independent entity, which mainly lobbied the executive branch.

Rosen pushed for the formation of an independent think tank that would be funded by many of Aipac’s donors: That body, the Washington Institute for Near East Policy is America’s most active and influential Mideast think tank today.

“He’s a very talented person,” said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. “I don’t think anybody is happy to see him go.”

Find us on Facebook!
  • Novelist Sayed Kashua finds it hard to write about the heartbreak of Gaza from the plush confines of Debra Winger's Manhattan pad. Tough to argue with that, whichever side of the conflict you are on.
  • "I’ve never bought illegal drugs, but I imagine a small-time drug deal to feel a bit like buying hummus underground in Brooklyn."
  • We try to show things that get less exposed to the public here. We don’t look to document things that are nice or that people would like. We don’t try to show this place as a beautiful place.”
  • A new Gallup poll shows that only 25% of Americans under 35 support the war in #Gaza. Does this statistic worry you?
  • “You will stomp us into the dirt,” is how her mother responded to Anya Ulinich’s new tragicomic graphic novel. Paul Berger has a more open view of ‘Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel." What do you think?
  • PHOTOS: Hundreds of protesters marched through lower Manhattan yesterday demanding an end to American support for Israel’s operation in #Gaza.
  • Does #Hamas have to lose for there to be peace? Read the latest analysis by J.J. Goldberg.
  • This is what the rockets over Israel and Gaza look like from space:
  • "Israel should not let captives languish or corpses rot. It should do everything in its power to recover people and bodies. Jewish law places a premium on pidyon shvuyim, “the redemption of captives,” and proper burial. But not when the price will lead to more death and more kidnappings." Do you agree?
  • Slate.com's Allison Benedikt wrote that Taglit-Birthright Israel is partly to blame for the death of American IDF volunteer Max Steinberg. This is why she's wrong:
  • Israeli soldiers want you to buy them socks. And snacks. And backpacks. And underwear. And pizza. So claim dozens of fundraising campaigns launched by American Jewish and Israeli charities since the start of the current wave of crisis and conflict in Israel and Gaza.
  • The sign reads: “Dogs are allowed in this establishment but Zionists are not under any circumstances.”
  • Is Twitter Israel's new worst enemy?
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.