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.”