Less than 48 hours had passed since CBS News broke the news about an FBI investigation involving the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, and the lobbying powerhouse was facing its first public test.
The setting was Sunday’s “community celebration” sponsored by Aipac, United Jewish Communities and the Republican Jewish Coalition.
The list of expected guest included 1,000 delegates to the Republican convention, Jewish communal leaders, volunteers and public dignitaries.
In the end, according to an Aipac spokesman, all the big names showed up.
The crowd included more than 60 members of the House of Representatives, eight senators, two Cabinet officials, five governors, one lieutenant governor, the top three members of the Bush campaign staff, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and his predecessor, Rudolph Giuliani. They joined nearly 1,500 other guests in packing the main hall at Chelsea Piers, a cavernous sports and events space on the Hudson River docks in Lower Manhattan, munching on a buffet that included grilled vegetables, beef dishes cooked up hot in woks and sliced smoked salmon. If the Republicans were feeling burned by Aipac, it was not apparent in their speeches. The speakers took turns praising the organization’s efforts in Washington
“I know Aipac, I know the Aipac leadership,” Senator Bill Frist said. “It is an outstanding organization.” Bush campaign manager Kenneth Mehlman and Giuliani each gave red-meat, partisan speeches, replete with attacks on Democratic nominee John Kerry. Bloomberg also spoke.
All the national Republican speakers gave ringing defenses of the war in Iraq, saying that the ousting of Saddam Hussein made both Americans and Israelis safer. Between bites, the mood among Aipac members was one of outrage and defiance at the news stories on the eve of the convention.
In her speech to the assembled crowd, the organization’s president, Bernice Manocherian, declared: “Be assured that we will not allow innuendo or false allegations to distract us from our central mission, which is supporting American interests in the Middle East and advocating for a strong U.S.- Israel-relationship…. The allegations are outrageous as well as baseless. They will not dissuade us from exercising our rights as American citizens to be involved in the political process.” The chairman of the Republican Jewish Coalition, Sam Fox, took pains in his speech to emphasize the closeness that his group feels with Aipac. “I’ve worked closely with Aipac for a quarter-century,” he said. “I know Aipac. It has always reflected the very best qualities of professionalism.”
Fred Zeidman, a longtime friend of Bush’s who is chairman of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council and a top Republican Jewish Coalition leader, acknowledged that the affair “can’t all be bulls—t,” but added: “We’re obviously hoping it’s bulls—t. Obviously there’s a reason they timed it right now. This is the best president Israel ever had and the best communication between Israel and the administration. There’s no reason for it to have happened. There’s something surreptitious going on. We don’t know what it is.”
Zeidman stressed: “The good news is that the administration is continuing [to show support for Aipac and the Jewish community]. I don’t think that if there was anything behind this, the administration would be as open as it is,” referring to the many administration officials in attendance.
Republican officials were out in force, with Cabinet secretaries Gale Norton and Anne Veniman CK, Office of Management and Budget Director Josh Bolten, and dozens of lawmakers. Top campaign officials at the event included Mehlman, chairman Marc Racicot, chief strategist Matthew Dowd and top fund raiser Jack Oliver.
Even as Republican leaders made their pitch for Bush, the controversial news reports were the talk of the event, with both Republicans and Jewish communal officials expressing alarm and unease over the impact of the scandal.
“It doesn’t smell right,” said one Jewish communal official who deals with international affairs. “The Israelis don’t need the information. With professionals doing this for so long, it doesn’t make sense that they would do it through a Jewish organization.”
“How is this going to play outside New York and Washington?” the official wondered. “Will it increase suspicion of Jews? It makes our job harder. Why would they trust us?”
The Bush-Cheney campaign’s liaison to the Jewish community, Michael Lebovitz, declined comment on the controversy, saying: “It would be totally inappropriate.”
Others tried to put the events into perspective.
Former Nixon aide G. Gordon Liddy, greeting admirers as he got some food at the event’s buffet, was nonchalant. “I doubt that the Israeli government had any knowledge of it,” he said. “After Pollard, they publicly announced a policy [that they would not spy on America]. They can’t control a well-meaning individual who might [collect] information, but that doesn’t make it an espionage operation.”
Grass-roots Jewish Republicans vowed that the stories would not make any difference in the manner or intensity of how they conducted their outreach. “The next week is going to show that it’s an internal [administration] issue,” said New York businessman Michael Moskowitz, who has raised at least $100,000 for the president’s re-election. “I’m confident Aipac did no wrong. This is probably a turf war between the CIA and the Defense Department.”
Daniel Israel, an alternate delegate in the Georgia delegation, said of the shifting media reports: “I think this is something blown out of proportion. Yesterday it was espionage. Today it’s a nonissue. Dan Rather reported it was some guy who was irresponsible about filing paper.”
The incident will not affect how the administration reaches out to Jews, Israel said, because “the U.S.-Israel relationship supersedes anything that would involve documents. The vindication is already occurring in the media today.”
Democrats, for their part, said they hoped the events would not affect Republicans’ plans.
“There’s partisan advantage, and there’s what’s right,” said the executive director of the National Jewish Democratic Council, Ira Forman, a former political director of Aipac. “There’s a dividing line. What’s good for the U.S.-Israel relationship is much more important than any petty partisan consideration.”
Prominent Democrats, including Senate Minority leader Tom Daschle, were also defending Aipac.
“For more than five decades, America as a country and Americans as individuals have stood by Israel,” Daschle said in a statement. “Aipac and its members have tirelessly led that effort, and America is better and stronger for it. It is vital work — work I know Aipac will continue to lead effectively.”