An explosive new report claims that the federal investigation into the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the pro-Israel lobbying organization, has been expanded to include suspicion of meddling in affairs of the House Intelligence Committee.
The report comes immediately on the heels of two new surveys that shine a critical light on Israel and on the role that the pro-Israel lobby plays in shaping American foreign policy.
A recent poll by Zogby International found Americans almost evenly split on whether the pro-Israel lobby was a key factor in influencing the Bush administration to invade Iraq and take a tough stand against Iran’s nuclear program. In a separate study exploring the views of faculty members at American universities, a significant percentage of scholars identified Israel and the United States as threats to global stability.
Last week, shortly after the surveys were released, Time magazine posted an article on its Web site alleging that the FBI is investigating claims of an improper deal between Aipac and Rep. Jane Harman of California, the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee.
Under the alleged deal — which both sides vigorously deny was ever made — the lobby would actively support Harman’s bid to become the next chair of the intelligence committee if the Democrats win control of the House. In return, Harman would press the government to go easy on two former Aipac staffers, Steve Rosen and Keith Weissman, who are being prosecuted under the Espionage Act for allegedly communicating classified information to Israeli diplomats and reporters.
Washington insiders are downplaying the likelihood that an investigation regarding Harman and Aipac would lead to any formal charges of wrongdoing. But the allegations — along with the upcoming trial of Rosen and Weissman, and the recent book deal signed by two of the pro-Israel lobby’s most prominent and vocal critics, scholars Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer — are likely to trigger increased media and public scrutiny of the pro-Israel lobby’s efforts to influence the decision-making process in Washington.
According to Time, Aipac allegedly agreed to get wealthy donors to lobby House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi to appoint Harman to the post. Federal officials told The New York Times that such an investigation had indeed been opened, although they said that the inquiry was “no longer being actively pursued.”
It is widely believed on Capitol Hill that Pelosi is not pleased with Harman as the ranking Democrat on the committee and prefers Rep. Alcee Hastings, a Florida Democrat, for chairmanship. Hastings, who is black, could shore up Pelosi’s ties to the Congressional Black Caucus. At the same time, Hastings’s odds are weakened by his past impeachment from a federal judgeship. Pelosi is said also to be considering a third candidate, Rep. Silvestre Reyes of Texas.
All sides involved denied any wrongdoing or any knowledge of the investigation, which according to the reports has been going on for a year.
Patrick Dorton, an Aipac spokesman, said that both Harman and Hastings have proven pro-Israel track records and that they are both worthy leaders.
“Aipac would never engage in a quid pro quo in relation to a federal investigation or any federal matter, and the notion that it would do so is preposterous,” Dorton said. He pointed to previous statements by the government, which made clear that Aipac was not the target of any investigation.
Several congressional sources confirmed that major donors to the Democratic Party have been lobbying Pelosi on behalf of Harman’s nomination to head the intelligence committee and that these attempts were not welcomed by the House Democratic leader.
The Time report names Haim Saban, a billionaire film producer of Israeli background and Aipac donor, as one of those who approached Pelosi on Harman’s behalf.
Sources close to the issue, and congressional staffers, have speculated that the Harman issue was raised in an attempt to damage the image of Democratic lawmakers in advance of the upcoming midterm elections. The sources also suggested that the leak might be an attempt to get back at senior Democrats on the intelligence committee for leaking the National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq, which embarrassed the administration.
Even before the recent allegations involving Aipac, the two recent surveys were giving pro-Israel activists cause for concern.
A poll commissioned by the Council for the National Interest and conducted by Zogby International found that 39% agreed with the statement that “the work of the Israel lobby on Congress and the Bush administration has been a key factor for going to war in Iraq and now confronting Iran” — areas in which public support for military action has dropped dramatically.
Forty percent disagreed with the statement.
Democrats, Catholics and young voters were among those most likely to agree that the pro-Israel lobby played a part in shaping America’s decision to go to war in Iraq. College graduates tended to disagree.
Aipac sources were dismissive of the poll, arguing that the survey was skewed and the question poorly worded. Sources close to the lobby said that there is no way to assess the validity of findings based on a single question in a single poll, while annual Gallup polls consistently show strong support of the American public for Israel. The sources stressed that the lobby is not alarmed in any way by the findings.
Another study, published this week, suggests that a strong anti-Israel current exists in American academic circles. The study, conducted by Gary Tobin and Aryeh Weinberg of San Francisco’s Institute for Jewish & Community Research, found that almost one-third of college faculty members think the United States is the greatest threat to global stability. Overall, respondents ranked America as the second-greatest threat — after North Korea but ahead of Iran, China and Iraq. Israel was ranked seventh, ahead of Syria, Pakistan and Russia.
Tobin said last week that he is planning to publish a separate monograph focusing on the views of American academics regarding Israel and the Middle East. The initial results already suggest that atheists, liberals and those who voted for John Kerry in 2004 are more likely than conservatives and Bush voters to see Israel as a threat to global stability.
Nathan Guttman staff writer, is the Forward’s Washington bureau chief. He joined the staff in 2006 after serving for five years as Washington correspondent for the Israeli dailies Ha’aretz and The Jerusalem Post. In Israel, he was the features editor for Ha’aretz and chief editor of Channel 1 TV evening news. He was born in Canada and grew up in Israel. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Contact Nathan at firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow him on Twitter @nathanguttman