“I wish they’d leave Bibi alone,” said my cab driver, an African-American born-again Christian in his mid-fifties. He was upset about the recent turn in U.S.-Israel relations over the last two weeks and complained all the way to Union Station. “What do they mean Jews can’t build in Jerusalem?” he asked. He grabbed his Bible from the dashboard and handed it to me. “You can find it right here.”
Europeans may believe that Palestine was settled by colonialist interlopers, but to many American ears this is akin to calling God a liar. Americans read the Bible as an authentic document detailing the eternal relationship between the Jews and their historical homeland. There are privileged sectors of the country that cannot comprehend the broad popularity of pro-Israel politics in America—corners of academia and the media that argue that Israel is a liability to U.S. interests. However, especially after 9/11, the rest of this vastly Christian country believes that American interests and those of the Jewish state are in sync, a conviction borne out not only in opinion polls, but electoral polls as well. There is no powerful coterie violating American laws to ensure that the U.S. Congress looks favorably on the Jewish state. If anti-Israel positions pleased voting constituencies, and campaign donors, our elected officials would adopt them as readily as they would spit at babies if such behavior ensured campaign victories.
For decades, those who work in academia or the news media have used plenty of methods to challenge and criticize the American consensus over Israel. But those who work in official Washington have taken up an even more meaningful weapon: the criminalization of policy disputes. Nowhere was this clearer that in the case of Steve Rosen, the former director of foreign policy issues for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee who was the target of an FBI sting operation that cost him his job.
In August 2004, Rosen was accused of passing information to the Israeli embassy that he had received from a U.S. Defense Department employee. The case against Rosen, along with that of his fellow AIPAC analyst Keith Weissman, was the twisted fruit of an FBI campaign that sought to prove that supporters of the Jewish state were part of a criminal conspiracy in the service of a foreign government.
“In the American counterintelligence community,” says Rosen, “there is a faction beholden to an ideology that believes Israel spies massively on the U.S. Jewish officials and pro-Israel figures collude in it, and no one does anything about it, because, they believe, Congress is Israeli-occupied territory. So, they find and create as many cases as they can against pro-Israel Jews.”
The case against Rosen was led by David Szady, an FBI counterintelligence official whose 34-year career was marked by charges of anti-Semitism. Still, Rosen resists calling the anti-Israel faction in the counterintelligence community anti-Semites. “I don’t like to use the word. If you call someone an anti-Semite and they have a Jewish friend, it gives them a cheap shield. You know, ‘Mr. X isn’t an anti-Semite, here’s a picture of him at my daughter’s bat mitzvah.’ The reality is they’re obsessed with the theory of a Jewish conspiracy. They see it everywhere.”
Rosen, a robust and thick-chested 67-year-old who, pitched slightly forward with his arms ending in loosely clenched fists, resembles a former boxer more than a man who makes his living at Washington lunch tables like the one we’re sitting at. He’s able to joke about the incompetence of his former persecutors—one of the pieces of evidence against him and Weissman was a video recorded upside down—but there’s nothing funny about what happened to him.
“I was prosecuted for leaks,” says Rosen, “but the people running this crusade use leaks.” It is worth noting that in the U.S. debate over Israel policy, many who claim that our national interest is being undermined by an anti-democratic cabal have themselves subverted the laws of the land to try to make their point. “They have wholesale access to secrets and classified information,” Rosen continues, “and they leak them as part of their campaign, a tsunami of leaks, and they never get prosecuted. I was prosecuted for five years and they got me fired. The hypocrisy is breathtaking. It wasn’t about leaks, it was about being too close to Israel. If you are an enemy of Israel you can leak as much as you want.”
AIPAC, where Rosen worked for 23 years, cut its star policy analyst loose, even as the organization used the FBI’s campaign against him to raise money. The federal charges against Rosen were quietly dropped in May 2009, but he still has a lawsuit pending against his former employers. “AIPAC needs to make it right and settle his lawsuit,” says Larry Hochberg, a friend of Rosen’s who sat on AIPAC’s board for six years. “To completely isolate him the way they did and throw him under the bus was brutal and uncivilized. I felt it was a Jewish betrayal.”
Rosen is now back to work as director of the Middle East Forum’s Washington Project. “It’s a continuation of what he did at AIPAC,” says MEF head Daniel Pipes, “even though we do not have their financial resources.”
Nine months ago, the AIPAC spy scandal was well on its way to becoming just another all-but-forgotten Washington legend, a story told during dessert and brandy. The irony is that just as Rosen’s case was dropped, the underlying premise of the campaign against him—Israel is a detriment to U.S. interests and has gained its place as a friend of America through the actions of a self-interested cabal—became the basis of American Middle East policy.
The last few weeks have been painful for friends of the U.S.-Israel relationship, as Vice President Joe Biden, CENTCOM head General David Petraeus, and Defense Secretary Robert Gates have all explained how Israel poses a threat to U.S. interests. These stories were followed by another round of articles carrying denials and clarifications from those who made the initial charges, all of it little comfort to any but those who see only silver linings. According to Rosen, many in Washington policymaking circles, especially those from the Democratic side of the aisle, have tried to put fears to rest, claiming that the storm clouds have passed and all is back to normal between the two countries. Rosen doesn’t believe it.
Obama chose to pick a fight with Israel, Rosen says, and the pattern of his behavior over the last year suggests he will find plenty of further occasions to be angered, disappointed, and offended by America’s erstwhile ally. “This is a crisis that could have happened any day over the last 40 years,” he explains. It is based in a difference in policy between the two sides that dates back to 1980 when Israel passed legislation designating Jerusalem as the undivided capital of the country, a law recognized by no one else in the international community, including Washington. The Americans didn’t like it, and neither did the Palestinians, Rosen says. “But they tolerated it and conducted negotiations. In the past,” he says, “negotiations were premised on overlooking this issue. Yitzhak Rabin built houses and was extolled as a hero of peace when Clinton convened Camp David. This Administration can’t even get proximity talks. Throughout all those productive periods, it wasn’t a primary concern. So, why now? Is Israel building more rapidly? No. Is Israel more provocative? No.”
What’s changed, Rosen says, is analogous to a marriage that suddenly hits the skids. “All along, there are things the husband doesn’t like about the wife and that she doesn’t like about him. Then 50 years later, one of them says this is unacceptable, they’re not going to have dinner, or lunch, or breakfast or intimate relations unless this thing is changed.”
Lee Smith is the author of The Consequences of Syria.
Lee Smith is the author of The Permanent Coup: How Enemies Foreign and Domestic Targeted the American President (2020).