WASHINGTON —Howard Kohr confronted the elephant in the room head-on as he opened the annual policy conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.
Kohr, Aipac’s executive director, told the estimated 5,000 delegates that the organization would not be harmed by the FBI investigation of two recently dismissed Aipac officials, Steve Rosen and Keith Weissman, who are suspected of spying for Israel. He described the FBI investigation as a “unique challenge” that “followed an unpredictable path and presented our institution with a complex circumstance.”
However, Kohr said, since the organization now knows “directly from the government that neither Aipac nor any of its current employees is or has ever been the target of this investigation, I can say definitively that Aipac will emerge from this, and no part of our work — on Capitol Hill, in the administration, in our grassroots — will be affected by this investigation.” Kohr added: “I pledge to you that I will take the steps necessary to ensure that every employee of Aipac — now and in the future — conducts themselves in a manner of which you can be proud, using policies and procedures that provide transparency, accountability and maintain our effectiveness.”
The speech was described by one veteran Jewish community activist as “throwing Steve [Rosen] overboard and sailing ahead on an ocean of American patriotism.”
Indeed, Kohr’s remarks appeared to reflect Aipac’s concerted effort to present itself as first and foremost an American organization that is motivated primarily by American patriotism and concern for America’s interests. The unstated goal, it seemed, was to quash suggestions that Aipac acts more as a foreign agent for Israel than as an American lobby, allegations that many believe prompted the federal probe.
This year’s conference slogan, “Israel, an American value,” was accompanied by a logo that shows an American flag framed by a six-pointed star.
During the convention’s opening session, several non-Jewish Americans — including a local sheriff, an African American student-council president, an Evangelical Christian radio talk-show host and the mayor of Baltimore — were paraded out to proclaim that “Israel is an American value.” And perhaps most significantly, at the end of the impressive congressional banquet Monday, only America’s national anthem was sung, breaking a long tradition of singing both the “Star Spangled Banner” and Israel’s “Hatikva.”
“To me the most significant and telling moment of this conference was when the ‘Star Spangled Banner’ was not followed by ‘Hatikva,’” said Harvey Gilbert, a delegate from Lodi, Calif. As he waited in the security line for Prime Minister Sharon’s keynote speech, Gilbert added, “What it said to me was that Aipac wants to become an American organization, not a Jewish organization, not the kind of organization that Jews support from their heart.”
One Aipac staffer, speaking on condition of anonymity, explained that in order to maintain its clout and effectiveness, Aipac must be seen as a profoundly American group that is primarily interested in America’s wellbeing. The staffer alluded to the words with which Kohr chose to seal his address. Speaking of America, he said: “What a gift we have been given by this country. What a legacy of liberty has been won for us. What a debt we owe as Americans, a debt that demands devotion: the same willingness to put service above self and to stand on the side of liberty wherever it is under siege — in America, in Israel and everywhere in the world.”
Aipac officials seem confident that their approach is working. They boasted this week that despite — and maybe because of — the FBI investigation, both membership and fundraising has jumped. More than 16,000 new members have joined the organization in recent months, and membership now exceeds 100,000. The organization’s annual budget tops $40 million, and after years of Aipac renting office space, construction will soon start on a permanent building that the organization will own in Washington.
The investigation didn’t deter members of the Bush administration and Congress from offering Aipac their traditional show of support.
Nearly half the members of Congress participated in the conference. Most of them attended Monday night’s gala dinner, which featured speeches by the leaders of both parties in both houses of Congress.
Outside the convention halls, however, people were still talking about the probe.
Rosen, Aipac’s former director of foreign policy, was quoted in The New York Times on Sunday as saying that he had done nothing wrong.
The same article suggested that Aipac fired Rosen and Weissman, an Iran analyst, last month after lawyers heard a tape of a conversation Weissman had with Larry Franklin, a former Pentagon analyst since indicted for passing classified information. According to the report, the tape caught Franklin, who was cooperating with the FBI at the time, telling Weissman that he was giving him classified information about an Iranian threat to American and Israeli agents in the Kurdish part of northern Iraq.
Rosen and Weissman reportedly passed the information onto an Israeli embassy staffer and a reporter at the Washington Post.
Franklin will be in court for a preliminary hearing Friday, and sources close to Rosen and Weissman say the two expect to be indicted as well.
Franklin now faces additional charges. On Tuesday, he was charged with possessing classified information at his West Virginia home. Some Aipac members at the conference questioned whether the organization should have dismissed Rosen and Weissman, believing they did nothing wrong.