Boundaries Blur for Communal Leaders, Israeli Officials

Aipac Controversy

By Ori Nir

Published September 10, 2004, issue of September 10, 2004.
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WASHINGTON — A handful of Jewish communal officials were summoned about one year ago to the Israeli Embassy in Washington for a briefing on Iran.

The meeting featured a computerized presentation from Israeli diplomats pointing to Iran as the party responsible for the 1994 bombing of the Buenos Aires Jewish community center, which killed 86 people.

The evidence seemed compelling.

After the presentation, an Israeli diplomat asked the Jewish communal officials in attendance to lobby Congress for an investigation into Iran’s role in the bombing. Several of the Jewish activists in the room were taken aback by the request, and asked why Israeli officials didn’t simply approach lawmakers themselves.

Israeli officials, in response, hinted that the evidence was the product of secretly obtained intelligence — and, hence, they were unable to adopt such a direct approach toward Congress.

In the end, none of the communal officials in attendance followed up on the request. Several of those in the room felt that the Israeli overture represented a violation of the boundaries that should define the respective roles of and guide relations between American Jewish organizations that lobby on behalf of Israel and Israeli officials formally representing a foreign government.

But such reticence is increasingly the exception, said several Jewish communal activists based in Washington. Instead, these activists said, the tendency is for Jewish organizational leaders — often at the urging of Israeli and American officials — to assume the role of diplomatic middlemen. Whatever boundaries do remain, they added, have been further weakened by an open-door hiring policy that sees staffers at Jewish organizations leave for posts in the Israeli or American governments, and increasingly sees former government officials in both countries taking up positions at Jewish organizations.

“We are not agents of another government,” said the Washington representative of one major Jewish organization. “But we are lax,” the representative said. “Maybe we just forgot the rules.”

Similar sentiments are being echoed privately ever since reports of an FBI investigation into the activities of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. Based on conversations they had with Aipac officials, these communal activists believe that if any wrongdoing did take place, it was an innocent mistake — the result, in the words of one Jewish communal official, of “fine lines being fuzzed.” Aipac officials, some speculate, may have transferred documents to Israel that they did not believe were secret, or may have done so because they did not believe it could do any harm.

The notion that some sort of inappropriate blurring of boundaries may have taken place was rejected by Malcolm Hoenlein, the executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations. The ability of American citizens to have close relationships with American officials, as well as with foreign governments, “is what makes America unique.

“It is certainly nothing that is threatening to the U.S.; quite the contrary,” Hoenlein said. Besides, he added, the American and Israeli governments have an extremely close formal relationship, one much closer than any Jewish group could establish with either country.

Other Jewish pro-Israel advocates, however, said that the strong political and strategic cooperation between Israel and the United States — particularly during President Bush’s term — combined with the symbiotic relationship between Israel and Jewish activists in America, has adversely contributed to an atmosphere in which lines of propriety are crossed. And, one Washington-based activist said, even if lines are not crossed, “there is a lot of hop-scotching” around them.

Former Aipac staffers, who lobbied for Israel as Americans, have gone on to become Israeli citizens and then serve in Israel’s Washington embassy as diplomats. Such shifting around “doesn’t look good,” one Jewish communal official said. “It may suggest to people that the lines are fictitious.”

In fact, at times, including the early 1990s, when Yitzhak Shamir was Israel’s prime minister, Aipac officials functioned as direct channels between the American and Israeli governments. With the dovish Shimon Peres serving as foreign minister, the hawkish Shamir, according to Washington insiders, often depended on Aipac to represent his views to the administration.

“Everyone seemed to agree afterwards that this was unhealthy,” a veteran Jewish activist said. Administration after administration, however, not only welcomed but also actually sought out Jewish activists to convey messages to the Israeli government. “There is a working assumption” on the part of administration officials “that messages and information will be passed on,” an official with one major Jewish organization said. “It’s something we’re happy to do and that both governments want us to do.”

This pattern may have contributed to an atmosphere in which well-meaning Jewish communal officials could have inadvertently committed inappropriate or illegal acts. Increasing the chances of a slip-up is the “genuine belief that Israel’s interest and the U.S. interest are so co-extensive, so identical that if you’re looking out for Israel you can’t be doing anything harmful to the U.S. and vice versa,” said the head of one Jewish organization. “That belief, that axiom, it creates a filter through which people see the world, and that also fuzzes the lines.”

Still, despite such comments, communal insiders say that Jewish groups are not engaged in anything closely resembling a serious re-evaluation of the rules guiding their interactions with Israeli officials. Said one senior Jewish communal official: “People are waiting for the dust to settle.”

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