On Feb. 2, Philip Rees, a Doha-based manager of investigations at Al Jazeera, sent letters to several U.S.-based Jewish and pro-Israel organizations—along with various current and former employees of those organizations—informing them that they will likely be featured in a documentary “concerning the role of pro-Israel advocacy groups in the United States.” Qatar-based Al Jazeera is a subsidiary of the regime-owned Qatar Media Corp., and its coverage often reflects the monarchy’s pro-Islamist leanings, especially on its Arabic channels.
For most recipients, the letters did not come as a surprise. Over a year ago, news broke that the universe of pro-Israel advocacy groups in Washington had been infiltrated by an undercover activist—who is almost certainly Tony Kleinfeld, a 25-year-old British citizen, Oxford graduate, and Palestine solidarity advocate. According to a 2017 Tablet investigation, during the summer and early autumn of 2016 Kleinfeld constructed a false pro-Israel persona, presented himself under a modified version of his first name, and enrolled in Georgetown University’s summer school with the hidden purpose of insinuating himself in pro-Israel groups in Washington.
The Feb. 2 letters confirm that an agent of the network had secretly recorded pro-Israel activists, though it does not name Kleinfeld specifically. Recipients so far include AIPAC, the Israeli-American Council, the Sheldon Adelson-created Maccabee Task Force, the Israel Project, the Israel on Campus Coalition, Fuel for Truth, the Zionist Organization of America, the Algemeiner newspaper, and participants in fellowships linked to conservative hedge-fund billionaire Paul Singer, along with a host of other Jewish and Israel-related advocacy and research institutions. (Tablet has either obtained or been briefed on the contents of 14 of these letters, and has confirmed the existence of at least three more of them.)
Most of the letters include a numbered list of alleged statements and claims specific to each recipient. They all begin with a notice that “Al Jazeera is in the final stages” of preparing the program, along with the following paragraph:
The documentary will investigate how such groups secure support for Israel in Congress and how they have been drawn into Israel’s covert campaign to defeat BDS, the movement to boycott, divest, and impose sanctions on Israel. We have uncovered evidence, [sic.] which suggests that this campaign may well involve these groups working with Israel to collect intelligence on and discredit U.S. citizens who support BDS, as well as others who are perceived as challenging Israel.
If the letters themselves were not a surprise, their timing was curious. The missives went out not long after the conclusion of the inaugural U.S.-Qatari strategic dialogue, which brought many of the regime’s top decision-makers to Washington—and were sent mere days before news broke suggesting that a Qatari-hired lobbyist and former senior Republican Senate staffer named Nick Muzin may have misreported the nature of his relationship with a foreign political party in his required federal disclosures. The story, published in the Glasgow, Scotland-based Herald newspaper, turned on Muzin’s representation of the right-wing Albanian Democratic Party, which is looking to make inroads with the Trump administration. The Qatari government is Muzin’s other foreign client, and he has spent the past six months making unlikely inroads with American Jewish leaders on Doha’s behalf.
Though the Kleinfeld sting and Muzin’s lobbying may at first seem to work at cross-purposes—with one ostensibly aimed at undermining American Jewish lobbying power and the other trying to exploit it—the same worldview appears to drive both strategies. Both betray a Qatari preoccupation with American Jewish communal power, as well as a desire to address whichever challenges Doha believes Jewish influence raises for the country’s vast ambitions in Washington and beyond.
In September of 2017, Muzin disclosed a contract to lobby for the Qatari government, as required under the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA). Muzin was the deputy chief of staff of Ted Cruz’s presidential campaign and served as the Texas senator’s point-person for the Jewish community. He holds both an MD and a JD and served as Republican Sen. Tim Scott’s chief of staff. Muzin is also a graduate of Yeshiva University and was rumored to be under consideration for the Orthodox flagship’s then-vacant presidency in 2016.
Qatar would seem like a hard sell for right-wing Jews, especially in mid-2017. The emirate allegedly bankrolls Hamas and is home to several of its senior leaders. Al Jazeera broadcasts a program hosted by Yusuf al-Qaradawi, a Doha-based Muslim Brotherhood elder statesman with a history of making inflammatory anti-Semitic comments on the network. Just before Muzin got the Qatar contract, a Saudi Arabia-led group of Gulf countries blockaded the tiny emirate and suspended diplomatic relations, supposedly over Qatar’s support for the Brotherhood and other extremists. The still-simmering standoff found Israel’s new friends in the Gulf ganging up against a country with a history of hostility toward the Jewish state.
Selling Jews on Qatar was hard—but not impossible, and Muzin and the Qataris soon found each other thanks in part to two known quantities in the U.S. Jewish scene: a kosher restaurant magnate and a Hamptons-based Orthodox rabbi who’s been married six times. According to multiple sources, Joey Allaham—the proprietor of former New York restaurant Prime Grill—introduced Muzin to connections that he had, for reasons these sources did not explain, among high-profile Qataris. Orthodox rabbi Marc Schneier played an additional role in guiding Qatar and Muzin to one another. When asked by email about his connection to Muzin’s Qatar lobbying, Allaham replied: “In my past/present business I have been very fortunate to meet and get to know people from all around the globe and I am unable to keep track of my introductions. An introduction I will never forget is taking Malcolm Hoenlein to Syria to meet Bashar because that is where I was born and where I started my life. I wish I could be more helpful but I have no further comments.” According to his press representative, Schneier was traveling and was unavailable for comment.
Nowhere in Muzin’s FARA filings does it specify that he was hired to conduct outreach to the U.S. Jewish community. Nevertheless, brokering meetings between Qatari officials and U.S. Jewish communal figures has turned out to be a nontrivial aspect of Muzin’s work on behalf of the emirate.
In September of 2017, Muzin largely failed to persuade Jewish leaders to agree to meetings with influential Qataris visiting New York for the opening of the United Nations General Assembly. Indeed, his effort provoked a heated op-ed from Rabbi Shmuley Boteach and a critical press release from Zionist Organization of America head Mort Klein, who then called Qatar’s government “a monstrous and evil regime” in an interview with Forbes.
Then, on Oct. 9, Clayton Swisher, the editor of Al Jazeera’s investigative unit, revealed that the network had sent an undercover operative to D.C. to report on pro-Israel organizations.
Sometime that month, according to well-connected sources, Noah Pollak, executive director of the Committee for Israel, reached out to Muzin to talk over the potential consequences of Al Jazeera moving ahead with the undercover documentary. Pollak had a professional familiarity with many of the groups Kleinfeld had targeted and knew Muzin from Republican circles in Washington.
The talks were strictly one-on-one conversations and, according to these sources, did not culminate in a quid pro quo or anything resembling a formal agreement. The discussions did, however, result in Muzin informing Qatari officials of the dangers of moving ahead with the program, and of the ways in which the documentary could jeopardize Doha’s nascent outreach to American Jews. As Haaretz reported, several American Jewish leaders were under the impression that Muzin had persuaded his clients to quash the documentary.
By mid-November, worries about the Kleinfeld video persisted, and Al Jazeera indicated a willingness to organize a meeting with American Jewish leaders in which they could share their concerns about the network’s content. To many involved, it seemed Muzin had adeptly managed the aftermath of Swisher’s announcement, assuaging the pro-Israel community’s anxieties without making his client appear weak. On Nov. 1, Muzin’s contract with Qatar leapt to $300,000 a month from $50,000 a month, with $150,000 of that to be spent on subcontractors.
It wasn’t just officials in Doha who were impressed with Muzin’s work. In November and December, a number of notable American Jewish leaders traveled to Qatar, including Alan Dershowitz, Malcolm Hoenlein, prominent Orthodox Rabbi Menachem Genack, Religious Zionists of America President Martin Oliner, and Mort Klein.
On Nov. 7, Ahmed al-Rumaihi, a former Qatari diplomat and current head of Qatar Investments, showed up at the Zionist Organization of America’s November 2017 annual fundraising dinner. When I asked Klein, head of the ZOA, whether al-Rumaihi’s presence there had some larger significance, he said he wasn’t even aware that the former Qatari official was at the event. “Anyone who pays $700 comes to the dinner. You give me 700 bucks, you can come,” he said.
Klein told me that he agreed to travel to Doha partly because he was told the trip would not be used a propaganda win for the Qataris. “They assured me it would be totally confidential,” Klein said. Klein also said the Zionist Organization of America received a letter from Al Jazeera on Feb. 2 that included the boilerplate language about the upcoming documentary, although it did not ask for the group to respond on any specific points.
The leader of America’s most prominent hardline Zionist organization said he was glad to travel to a country often accused of supporting Hamas. “When an Arab leader asks the head of a Jewish organization to come make a case for what we would like to see happen, it’s really my mission, and it’s ZOA’s mission, to fight for the Jewish people,” Klein explained. “I didn’t just go and smile at them; I brought a 50-page report, I had many copies that I handed to everyone I met with—from the speaker of the parliament to the emir.” Klein told me he met with the emir at his palace for two hours.
Dershowitz told me that he had similar reasons for agreeing to go to Qatar. “I went because the emir invited me to talk about Qatar-Israel relations and Qatar-U.S. relations,” Dershowitz said. “If Iran invited me and they would guarantee my safety and would accept my Israeli-stamped passport, I would go to Iran.” Like Klein, Dershowitz also met with the emir, during which he says they discussed Gaza, the return of the bodies of IDF soldiers that Hamas held, and Al Jazeera’s programming. “It was not an easy meeting for him,” Dershowitz recalled.
By all accounts, the Kleinfeld operation was a minor or perhaps even nonexistent issue for Klein and Dershowitz. Nick Muzin would not comment as to whether Klein, Dershowitz, or anyone else had raised concerns over the Washington sting with him.
Both Klein and Dershowitz said that they would criticize Qatar if the documentary ever ran. “If they put out the documentary, I will write a bitter attack on Qatar … that [the hypothetical airing of the documentary] painfully leads me to believe that the whole trip was nonsense, was meaningless,” said Klein. Dershowitz demurred when asked if he considered Al Jazeera to be an instrument of Qatari policy. “It’s hard to know. That’s one of the things that I would want to see investigated by an independent commission, whether it really has any independence, whether it’s Pravda, whether it’s a state-sponsored media outlet,” he said. “I want to know the truth.” (Muzin would not comment about any connection between Al Jazeera and Qatari government policy.)
For both men, and for American Jewish Congress President Jack Rosen, who also visited Doha during late 2017 but claimed that his travels were independent of any of Muzin’s outreach efforts, the logic of dialogue outweighed the hazards of traveling to a country that could often seem so hostile to Jewish and Israeli interests. “The Qataris do what many countries do, and certainly many of the Gulf states do, which is try to lobby influencers and communities in order to tell their story and maybe sway the opinion in a different direction,” Rosen said. “I think it’s good for individuals to go there, leaders to go there of any religion, and see first-hand what’s going on and hear out the Qatari leadership telling their story.”
None of these leaders believed they had been co-opted in any way. Dershowitz bristled at the suggestion that his opinions were for sale. “There is no amount of money in the world that would get me change my views on Israel and anything else,” he said. (Dershowitz and Klein both denied that they had been compensated in any way for their trips.)
Nevertheless, the visits provided a degree of cover for the emirate, regardless of whether that was the intention of the trips’ participants or organizers. The trips had proved that the Qataris weren’t beyond the pale even for right-wing and pro-Israel American Jews.
The relationship between Al Jazeera and the Qatari government is a matter of controversy. For some, the network is a beacon of press freedom in the Middle East, with Al Jazeera’s admirers maintaining that the Qatari government does not control the channel’s content. Others see Al Jazeera as a vehicle for Qatari policy that is only secondarily a news outlet. A 2008 U.S. State Department report found that “the Government exercised editorial and programmatic control of the channel through its supply of funding to the network and its influence on the selection of the station’s management.” In October, Mohamed Fahmy, a former Al Jazeera reporter imprisoned in Egypt for 20 months as a possible reprisal for the channel’s perceived support for the Muslim Brotherhood who is now suing the network for negligence, told Tablet that he sees no real distinction between the channel and the government that owns and operates it. “I do not differentiate between Al Jazeera and Qatar. … Their journalism is not about telling the story and press freedom and giving voice to the voiceless and all these empty slogans. It simply serves Qatari intelligence and Qatari foreign policy.” In a June article in The Atlantic, Gregg Carlstrom, an Economist journalist and former Doha-based Al Jazeera staffer, reported that an Al Jazeera English correspondent had been reprimanded for asking an overly tough question to a Muslim Brotherhood spokesperson on-air in 2013, and noted Al Jazeera Arabic’s internally divisive post-Arab Spring shift in focus: “Some journalists quit in protest; the ones who remained continue to push a sectarian, pro-Sunni Islamist line.”
If the documentary runs, it is an absolute certainty that there will be some kind of effort in Congress and the pro-Israel community to make Al Jazeera register under the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA), as the Russian government-owned TV network RT was required to do last November. Entities must register if their work is both foreign-funded and foreign-directed, and activists believe that a perceived spy operation aimed at American political groups helps bolster their case.
This past week, New Jersey Congressman Josh Gottheimer began circulating a letter that called on the Justice Department to explore the issue further. “Congress needs clarification as to whether additional foreign principals [other than RT] should also be required to register under FARA, including Qatar’s Al Jazeera, which the U.S. State Department has indicated is state-controlled,” the letter says, before citing “Al Jazeera’s record of radical anti-American, anti-Semitic, and anti-Israel broadcasts.” The letter makes no mention of the Washington sting operation, and according to at least one source, was already in the works three weeks ago.
A FARA designation would be disastrous for the network, which would be subject to a host of onerous new financial disclosures. For instance, freelancers would potentially have to make FARA filings whenever they’re paid for individual services. Al Jazeera has a considerable presence in the nation’s capital that FARA registration could hamstring: According to the Congressional Directory, there were a whopping 175 Al Jazeera staffers credentialed in the House and Senate press galleries alone in 2016 (The New York Times had 43, while the hometown Washington Post had 111).
Muzin, too, seems likely to come under even more scrutiny. Tablet has obtained a five-page memo that came into the possession of Jason Torchinsky, a prominent Republican lawyer and the GOP’s lead counsel in the ongoing Pennsylvania redistricting case. The document lays out a series of alleged discrepancies in Muzin’s various lobbying disclosures. In March of 2017, Muzin declared under the Lobbying Disclosure Act that he had signed a contract with Biniatta Trade, a Scotland-based holding company that was itself owned by two shell companies based in Belize. An individual does not have to make a FARA filing for commerce-related lobbying work; a FARA disclosure is required when the work is funded and directed by a foreign government or political party. It turned out Biniatta was a cut-out for the Democratic Party of Albania, and Muzin filed an amended FARA disclosure for his Biniatta-related activities in November stating that the Party was the primary beneficiary of that work. The FARA disclosure for Biniatta came eight months after Muzin’s LDA filing declaring his work for the company, which was owned and controlled by a foreign political party. FARA requires filing a disclosure 10 days after a contract is finalized.
Muzin had filed a FARA disclosure for his Democratic Party of Albania contract in March of 2017, around the same time he filed the separate LDA disclosure for Biniatta. The November amended filing was an acknowledgment that both contracts were likely for the same client—in total, Muzin’s company was paid $150,000 from Biniatta and $525,000 from the Democratic Party directly. The arrangement, explored in detail in the five-page memo, was the subject of an investigation in Scotland’s Herald newspaper published Feb. 8.
The five-page memo also cites an Albanian news report on the contract suggesting that the amount of money Muzin was paid nearly exceeds the Democratic Party’s total budget and alleges discrepancies between the amounts reported in Muzin’s LDA and FARA filings and the total reported in his amended FARA declaration in November. In December, Balkan Insight also reported that the payments between Biniatta Trade and Muzin’s consulting firm were under investigation in Albania.
Torchinsky, who is an experienced government affairs attorney and FARA expert, finds Muzin’s filings suspicious. “I think this raises a lot of questions that aren’t answered by the public filings,” Torchinsky says of the Biniatta contracts. “What the answers are to those questions I would hate to even speculate because I don’t know. In order to answer the questions … you would need subpoena power, and would have to dig through financial records.” As Torchinsky explained, “FARA requires a lot of disclosure about what you’re doing and a lot of transparency when you’re working for a foreign principal in the U.S., and there’s a lot of questions about whether the filings of Mr. Muzin and his company are as transparent as the law requires.” There are potential issues with the Qatar-related filings too, in which “the payments reported to subcontractors don’t come close to $150,000 a month,” Torchinksy says. (According to the five-page memo, Muzin is not required under FARA to account for all payments to subcontractors in public disclosures, but his current filings list total monthly payments to contractors that don’t come anywhere close to the $150,000 per month stated in his updated contract.)
The fallout from this month’s various events could have other consequences for Qatar’s outreach efforts in the United States, too. Because of the allegedly close connections between Al Jazeera and the regime, the extensive resources needed to carry out the undercover sting, and Kleinfeld’s alleged misrepresentation of his both his identity and his reasons for being in the United States, many of the letter recipients now perceive themselves as victims of state-sponsored espionage.
Dershowitz didn’t dispute this characterization. “Qatar wouldn’t like it if another state sent undercover agents into its country, which they fear,” said Dershowitz, who offered a counterexample. “They’re very worried about the Saudis trying to assassinate their Emir.”
So, what did Kleinfeld actually find? According to the letters, an operative with the network recorded a young, low-level AIPAC development staffer discussing “under-the-table” relations between Israel and the Arab Gulf states during an event the group held in Florida. Ironically, the Algemeiner allegedly attempted to recruit Kleinfeld to act as an undercover reporter at the Students for Justice in Palestine national conference held at George Mason University in early November of 2016. Kleinfeld never followed through on his offer to infiltrate the event, although he ended up attending it as a protester anyway, traveling to Fairfax, Virginia, in a bus with activists who included young professionals on fellowships linked to influential conservative billionaire Paul Singer.
Kleinfeld recorded conversations with activists during the bus ride and protest and secretly filmed a public counter-event to the SJP conference co-sponsored by the right-wing campus group Turning Point USA, which counts Donald Trump Jr. as a board member. Kleinfeld attended the Israeli-American Council’s annual conference in September of 2016, an event that drew more than 2,100 people and a number of Israeli politicians, including Minister of Construction Yoav Galant. Kleinfeld enrolled in an educational program with Fuel for Truth and attended several of the organization’s classes for pro-Israel advocates. He also went on a Jewish National Fund-organized young professionals networking cruise on the Potomac River that included an open bar.
A former staffer at the Israel Project, where Kleinfeld briefly held a volunteer position and even pulled off a few successful fundraising phone calls, was recorded boasting about the group’s success in getting journalists drunk and shaping media coverage of topics like BDS. TIP may have been a target of opportunity for Kleinfeld, but the organization has a notable history with Qatar. In 2014, TIP advocated for a congressional rule that would require anyone testifying before a committee to disclose payments that either they or their employer had received from a foreign government. That undertaking was primarily aimed at Qatar, an aspiring soft-power leader that was aggressively seeking ways to curry influence in Washington. TIP’s efforts preceded reports in The Washington Post and The New York Times about Doha’s funding for the Brookings Institution’s Middle East research programs. Whether he knew it or not, Kleinfeld had infiltrated a civil society organization that had advocated for policies counter to the interests of the very same government that was paying his bills in D.C.
The letters revealed two cases in which staffers appear to bad-mouth or otherwise criticize their organizations’ donors. One letter fishes for comment about alleged ties between a particular group and Israel’s Ministry of Strategic Affairs, something which would violate FARA if it wasn’t disclosed and also happened to be true. Multiple letters suggest that Kleinfeld was looking to identify the funders and individuals behind The Canary Mission, an anonymous effort to shame and identify anti-Israel activists on U.S. college campuses. Several of the letters try to solicit additional information about the project.
The indiscipline of many of the quotes included in the letters is a useful reminder of the types of people Kleinfeld successfully preyed upon. As one letter recipient explained to me, the vast majority of people in Washington hold insignificant jobs at insignificant organizations: “No one ever walks into these places and says, ‘Tell me how important you are.’ ” Little surprise that a charming and seemingly-earnest British-accented 23-year-old polyglot was able to get other 23-year-olds to exaggerate about their organization’s activities or explain how they thought things really worked in the pro-Israel world.
If Al Jazeera is sitting on a FARA-related headshot or some other bombshell about the inner workings of pro-Israel organizations, it wasn’t in evidence in any of the letters that Tablet reviewed. Multiple recipients likened their letters to fundraising pamphlets: It’s as if Al Jazeera had compiled a description of jobs and organizational functions that their groups were supposed to be performing anyway and then presented them as a series of sinister revelations. One letter asks to respond to the follow bland admission: “Members of Congress can only be prevailed upon by pressing them, and the only way to do that is with money.” One letter accuses: “You stated a) that AIPAC had succeeded in obtaining $38 billion in security aid to Israel from the U.S. Government and that this mattered more than any ‘war of ideas,’ and b) that the Israeli government generally leverages Jewish organizations in the Diaspora.” This will come as no shock to anyone who is aware of the existence of Israel’s Ministry of Diaspora Affairs or who followed the negotiation of the 10-year U.S.-Israel defense assistance MoU reached in 2016—in the view of many pro-Israel advocates, the only scandalous thing about the package is that it had been too small.
Could there be more out there? Multiple sources told Tablet that Kleinfeld’s initial point of contact in the U.S. pro-Israel community was Joe Richards, AIPAC’s Wall Street director and co-founder of Fuel for Truth. Richards likely first met Kleinfeld during a 2016 trip to London, and Richards appears on camera addressing an AIPAC-affiliated meeting in the British capital in episode four of The Lobby, Al Jazeera’s undercover exposé about pro-Israel activity in London. Tablet has seen evidence that Kleinfeld expressed interest in attending a September 2016 fundraiser at the home of Hilary Smith-Kapner, an AIPAC donor, political bundler, and consultant. But AIPAC isn’t panicking right now, and in the middle of last week, the Kleinfeld sting was low on the list of things that staffers at the lobby’s Washington headquarters were worrying about.
What’s striking about Kleinfeld’s efforts isn’t that he uncovered evidence of serious wrongdoing. Instead, after spending considerable resources and man-hours to train an undercover operative, setting him up with a $5,400-a-month apartment and enrollment in a prestigious and expensive university program in a foreign country, bankrolling his living costs for several months, furnishing him with clandestine cameras and recording equipment, and sifting through the resulting morass of footage, Al Jazeera may have documented nothing more wicked than Americans participating in their political system in normative (even, one might say, boring and uninspired) ways.
Muzin and Kleinfeld’s work tells a dissonant story about Qatar’s view of the U.S. Jewish community: Does Doha see American Jews as an obstacle or an opportunity? Does the Qatari regime want to squeeze the Jewish community or embrace it? Both? Whatever its actual objectives in Washington, what’s clear is that American Jews somehow factor into them. What’s less clear is whether the Kleinfeld and Muzin strategies can remain in harmony as they have for the past year—or whether exposure means the end of one of them or both.
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