Reports of business dealings between embattled Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff and the government of a Malaysian leader known for antisemitic speeches are drawing flak from Democrats and raising eyebrows among Jewish communal officials.
According to press reports, Abramoff once worked for the government of former Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohamad, after the Southeast Asian leader accused “the Jews” in 1997 of conspiring to drive down his country’s currency. Abramoff, a longtime conservative activist and Orthodox Jewish philanthropist who supports right-wing Israeli causes, was paid indirectly in 2001 by Mahathir’s government, at a time when the premier was seeking to improve Malaysia’s image in America, according to reports in The Washington Post and Time magazine.
A report in The Hill newspaper states that Abramoff opened a short-lived lobbying firm with a Muslim-American activist, Khaled Saffuri. Saffuri has been criticized for his ties to radical Muslims and an alleged terrorist. An Abramoff spokesman denied that the Jewish lobbyist had any position at the firm.
Abramoff is the man at the center of the controversy over the foreign trips taken by House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, the Texas Republican who has come under fire for taking three trips abroad that allegedly were paid for by lobbyists, a violation of House ethics rules. At least two of the trips, a 1997 visit to Russia and a 2000 trip to England and Scotland, allegedly were financed by entities with links to Abramoff.
The reports that Abramoff had lobbied for the Mahathir regime and that DeLay had dined with Mahathir at a “fancy dinner” in Kuala Lumpur in 2001 provided an opportunity for Democrats to attack them for political hypocrisy. Republicans had used Mahathir in attacks on Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry that were aimed at the Jewish community. Late in the 2004 campaign, the Republican parties of Florida and Ohio mailed Jewish households a flyer with a picture of Kerry positioned between the Malaysian premier and Yasser Arafat, the late Palestinian leader. “Two infamous foreign leaders have stepped forward from the shadows to endorse John Kerry,” the flyer read.
“Tom DeLay and Jack Abramoff’s web of corruption doesn’t even seem to know any international boundaries,” said David Wade, campaign adviser for Kerry 2004. “It looks like it’s less than six degrees of separation from one of the most vicious smears in presidential campaign history.”
A longtime friend and associate of DeLay, Abramoff raised thousands of dollars for the majority leader’s political causes and charities, and employed many former DeLay staffers in his lobbying operations. The two men served as early pillars in the burgeoning political relationship between Jewish and evangelical Christian conservatives.
Abramoff spokesman Andrew Blum had no comment on reports of the Malaysia lobbying.
DeLay spokesman Dan Allen did not return a call seeking comment on DeLay’s reported dinner with Mahathir. Last week, a number of right-wing Jews praised the embattled DeLay in the Forward as a friend of Israel and American Jewry.
News of Abramoff’s business ties also provoked consternation among some Jewish organizational officials.
The director of international affairs of the American Jewish Congress, David Twersky, said, “It’s entirely inappropriate for any American, especially a Jewish American, to represent someone who makes wild and irresponsible allegations of worldwide Jewish conspiracies.” The American Jewish Committee’s Washington representative, Jason Isaacson, said, “From news reports it seems like the range of his clients and associates was breathtaking even by Washington standards.”
Mahathir was well known for his antisemitic remarks at the time Abramoff supposedly worked for his government. In 1997, after the value of Malaysian currency, the ringgit, took a dive, Mahathir publicly accused “the Jews” of having an “agenda” against his mostly Muslim state. “[W]e are Muslims, and the Jews are not happy to see the Muslims progress,” he was quoted as saying, according to The New York Times. “The Jews robbed the Palestinians of everything, but in Malaysia they could not do so, hence they do this, depress the ringgit.” At the time, Rabbi Abraham Cooper of the Simon Wiesenthal Center called Mahathir, who frequently made similar remarks, a “classic antisemite.”
In 2003, Mahathir gave a speech at a conference of worldwide Muslims that outraged American lawmakers.
“We are actually very strong. 1.3 billion people cannot be simply wiped out,” Mahathir said. “The Europeans killed 6 million Jews out of 12 million. But today the Jews rule this world by proxy. They get others to fight and die for them.”
Congress passed a resolution condemning the speech. Bush administration officials said that the president rebuked Mahathir privately, but the Malaysian leader denied that any such conversation took place.
This week, a sponsor of the congressional resolution condemning Mahathir, Rep. Eric Cantor of Virginia, chief deputy GOP whip and one of DeLay’s top defenders, did not return requests for comment submitted to an aide.
Abramoff’s reported business ties to Mahathir’s regime are not the only instance in which the lobbyist allegedly has embarked on a business relationship with parties considered at odds with Jewish interests. According to The Hill, in 2001, Abramoff set up a lobbying firm, the Lexington Group, with Saffuri, a former deputy director of the American Muslim Council and a protégé of top Republican activist Grover Norquist, a longtime political comrade-in-arms of Abramoff.
Blum, Abramoff’s spokesman, said, “Jack Abramoff held no position at the Lexington Group and has no knowledge about the information you are asking about.”
Norquist acted as a key architect of Muslim outreach for Republicans and has declared that “George W. Bush was elected President of the United States of America because of the Muslim vote.”
Saffuri served as national adviser on Arab and Muslim affairs for Bush’s 2000 presidential campaign. The Hill cites Saffuri as having “helped refer clients with Islamic ties — including the government of Malaysia and the General Council of Islamic Banks — to Abramoff for lobbying services.”
The Anti-Defamation League describes the AMC as a “strongly anti-Israel” organization with leaders who “have expressed support of anti-Israel terrorist organizations Hamas and Hezbollah.” Saffuri’s former boss at the AMC, Abdurahman Alamoudi, is serving a 23-year prison sentence for illegal financial dealings with Libya involving a plot to assassinate Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah.
Articles in National Review, Insight magazine and Newsweek, among others, have described ties between Saffuri and Sami al-Arian, a Florida professor who is awaiting trial on charges that in the 1990s he acted as a top fundraiser for the notorious terrorist group Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Al-Arian denies the charges.
Al-Arian, who campaigned in Florida with then-candidate George Bush during the 2000 election, visited the Bush White House twice — even as the FBI was compiling evidence against him. Conservative activists are still trying to figure out how al-Arian gained access to Bush and to his chief political adviser, Karl Rove.
Writing in Frontpage magazine, a conservative journal, Frank Gaffney, a former Reagan administration official and critic of Norquist and Saffuri, wrote, “Saffuri… arranged for the Bush campaign to enlist Sami al-Arian, a well-known Florida-based activist — despite the fact that the professor made little secret of his radical Islamist sympathies — to help engender Muslim support in his state.”
Saffuri was quoted in Insight magazine as denying that he and Norquist had anything to do with al-Arian’s White House visits. Saffuri did not respond to two calls seeking comment left on his office answering machine. Norquist has called critics of his Muslim outreach “racists” and “bigots.” He did not return requests for comment left with his office.
Gaffney told the Forward that he has spoken out often about the “insidious effect” of what he described as Norquist’s and Saffuri’s promotion of radical Muslims. If they have been aided by Abramoff, Gaffney said, “It’s an outrage.”