WASHINGTON — Israeli efforts to secure swift American action against Iran’s nuclear program are being threatened by a stalled presidential nomination and the sudden dismissal of two officials at the country’s most influential pro-Israel lobbying organization.
Last week the Forward and the Jewish Telegraphic Agency reported that the lobbying group, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, was pushing out two of its top officials — Steve Rosen, the organization’s policy director, and Keith Weissman, its senior analyst on Iran. The two men, who are reportedly being investigated by the FBI for allegedly passing classified documents to Israel, were Aipac’s point men in lobbying the White House on Iran-related issues.
Also last week, with mounting opposition toward Bush’s choice of John Bolton to serve as America’s ambassador to the United Nations, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee postponed its vote on the nomination. A neoconservative ally of Vice President Richard Cheney and the State Department’s top official on arms control, Bolton is known as a strong supporter of Israel’s position that Tehran is coming alarmingly close to being able to weaponize its nuclear material — a view rejected by other top Bush administration officials.
Pro-Israel activists in Washington are privately worrying that the shakeup at Aipac, as well as Bolton’s troubles, will make it even harder for Jerusalem to convince the White House that quick action must be taken against Iran.
“It would sure help to have Bolton in the U.N. and credible [pro-Israel] lobbyists in Washington,” said a senior official with a major national Jewish organization, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “This is a crucial point in time” to impact America’s policy on Iran, the organizational official said.
Israeli experts believe that Iran’s efforts to enrich uranium to a weapon-grade degree can reach a “point of no return” in a matter of months, as opposed to most analysts in the Bush administration who measure the time frame in years.
In an interview with Ma’ariv, Prime Minister Sharon said that “only the United States can head” an international coalition to put pressure on Iran that would compel it to abandon its drive for nuclear weapons. In briefing Israeli reporters earlier this month following his summit in Crawford, Texas, with President Bush, Sharon indicated that this was his message to the president.
Referring to international sanctions, a senior official in Sharon’s entourage to Crawford told reporters, “We have to take this to the Security Council; they are the only ones with the tools to do this.”
Sharon’s government and its friends in Washington are still hoping that Bolton will spearhead an American leadership role in imposing U.N. Security Council sanctions on Iran. But serious doubts about Bolton’s qualifications for the U.N. post could crush those hopes. A Senate vote on whether to confirm Bolton is scheduled for May 12.
“Bolton has always been tough on Iran, so when you look at the rejection of Bolton you’re looking at what will be interpreted as the rejection of a philosophy in general,” said Thomas Neumann, executive director of the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs, a hawkish Washington-based think tank and advocacy group. “What we need today on Iran is someone like Bolton, who will show the world that we’re tough.”
Similar concerns about the impact of Aipac’s moves are being voiced. But, in addition, these worries are intertwined with a sense of bewilderment and anxiety among Jewish organizational leaders over the dismissal of Rosen and Weissman.
For several months — and perhaps for as long as two years — the men have been the target of the FBI investigation. They are suspected of having illegally transferred secret information from a Pentagon expert on Iran, Larry Franklin, to an Israeli diplomat. Rosen and Weissman deny any wrongdoing.
In the past, Aipac had emphatically denied that any of its employees had done anything wrong.
However, last week, in response to queries from the Forward, Aipac spokesman Patrick Dorton said he could not reply to the question of whether Aipac stood behind its past claims that none of the organization’s employees had acted illegally or improperly. Dorton, who was communications director of President Clinton’s National Economic Council and later specialized in crisis-management public relations, was recently hired by Aipac to speak to the media about the investigation.
This past December, Aipac released a statement saying that “neither Aipac nor any member of our staff has broken any law.” But last week the organization issued a statement saying that it had fired Rosen and Weissman “after careful consideration of recently learned information and the conduct Aipac expects of its employees.” All past statements of support for the two men were removed from the organization’s Web site.
Aipac officials, who in recent weeks were tight-lipped on anything involving the FBI investigation, held a conference call on the firings, but participants said that no explanation was given for the firings.
Sources close to Aipac said that members of the board put pressure on the organization’s leadership to distance itself from Rosen and Weissman. One senior staffer at a national Jewish organization, who knows Aipac intimately, said, “Aipac had to cut bait.” The official said that the ongoing scandal was eating away at Aipac “like cancer.” The same official said that now, “at least there won’t be such a large elephant in the room at the policy conference.” Aipac is expecting thousands of delegates from all 50 states at its annual conference in Washington between May 22 and May 24. Sharon, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and the entire leadership of Congress are expected to address the gathering.
Responding to concerns that Rosen’s and Weissman’s dismissal would hinder Aipac’s lobbying efforts on Iran, a spokesman for Aipac said that exposing Iran’s pursuit of unconventional weapons “is a top priority for Aipac; we’re focusing a significant level of resources and expertise on this very important issue.” The organization took up the Iran issue in the mid-1990s at the request of then-Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin. Rabin was trying to lower the lobby’s targeting of the Palestinians, with whom Israel was trying to make peace.
The issue will be front and center at the pro-Israel lobby’s annual conference next month. A walk-through model of Iran’s uranium enrichment apparatus will be the centerpiece exhibit at Washington’s convention center.