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Mort Klein’s Fish Tale

Was the ZOA dishonest about its relationship with Qatar, or were they duped?

Armin Rosen
July 03, 2018
Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images
Morton Klein of Zionist Organization of America attends a hearing at the National Oversight and Government Reform Committee on moving the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem on Capitol Hill on November 8, 2017 in Washington, DC.Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images
Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images
Morton Klein of Zionist Organization of America attends a hearing at the National Oversight and Government Reform Committee on moving the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem on Capitol Hill on November 8, 2017 in Washington, DC.Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images

Three weeks ago, Zionist Organization of American president Mort Klein published a statement excoriating the Gulf emirate of Qatar for its relationship with Islamic extremists and terror groups. Klein laid out his reasons for visiting Doha in January and concluded that the country’s regime had taken “alarming steps backwards” in the five months since then. In January and February, Klein had explained to both Haaretz and Tablet that he had gone to Qatar hoping he could convince the country’s leaders to end their support for Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood. On June 7th, I called Klein to ask him what had changed. He referred to the statement itself, which mentioned an award the regime had given to the radical Doha-based Muslim Brotherhood cleric Yusuf al-Qaradawi, along with a June 5th New York Times opinion piece by Qatar’s minister of foreign affairs criticizing Israel for recent violence along the country’s border with the Gaza Strip. I pressed him further: Why were these recent developments particularly outrageous to him? Why this statement at this moment? “What does that have to do with it? Why are you asking stupid questions?” Klein replied. “I’m not going to answer questions that don’t make any sense.”

The more anxious developments might have been unfolding closer to home. On June 15th, Joey Allaham, a former kosher restaurateur who became a pivotal figure in Qatar’s outreach efforts in the United States, filed a declaration with the Department of Justice under the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) outlining his past work on behalf of Qatar. As Tablet reported back in February, Allaham helped connect the Qatari government to Nick Muzin, a senior Republican senate-staffer-turned lobbyist Doha hired to plead the country’s case to a skeptical-verging-on-hostile American Jewish community. The “foreign principals” listed in Allaham’s FARA declaration are Mohammed bin Hamad al-Thani, a member of the royal family and one of the leaders of Qatar’s successful World Cup bid, and Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, the country’s Emir and head of state, suggesting high-level sanction for Allaham’s work.

On June 6th, Allaham was given 72 hours to cooperate with a subpoena filed as part of a lawsuit by the Republican donor Elliott Broidy alleging Muzin and the Qatari regime had participated in the hacking of his email account and the dissemination of its contents to various media organizations. The next day, Allaham told Politico that he would soon be making a FARA declaration, effectively acknowledging that he had been an undeclared lobbyist for Qatar. As Tablet reported, Qatar’s own legal team said that Allaham had been “subcontracted by Nicolas Muzin in connection with Muzin’s retention by the Qatari Embassy for diplomatic outreach” in a June 7th letter to the federal judge presiding over the Broidy case.

Allaham’s FARA materials hit the Department of Justice’s website on June 15th. As Mother Jones first reported, the declaration discloses two $50,000 donations to the Zionist Organization of America in connection with Allaham’s Qatar work. One of them came on November 2nd, just days before the ZOA’s annual gala dinner on November 12th, an event that Ahmed al-Rumaihi, a former Qatari diplomat and investor and a defendant in the Broidy lawsuit, attended. The second $50,000 donation came on January 23rd, not long after Klein visited Qatar.

At minimum, the ZOA took a softer approach to Qatar, to the point of its president visiting Doha, at the same time it was receiving $100,000 from someone who eventually turned out to be one of the country’s registered agents. When first reached for comment on June 21st, Klein explained how this happened. He said he first met Allaham in Washington while attending a conference at the St. Regis Hotel in September of 2017—which is also the same month that Muzin began his lobbying activities for Qatar. According to Klein, Allaham said he intended to become one of the top five highest donors to the ZOA and wanted to donate enough to eventually become a member of the group’s board. Klein said that both $50,000 checks had Allaham’s home address on them. “I never in any way shape or form though this was money from Qatar,” he said. “If there was a hint this was really Qatari money I wouldn’t have taken it and I wouldn’t have gone [there].”

Klein said he believed Allaham to be a wealthy pro-Israel businessman with properties in the Hamptons and the Upper East Side. But Klein added he was aware that Allaham had business and personal connections to Qatar as well. “He said he’s one of the people who manage their money and he says they really want to change—that the Emir is very committed to change and to get closer to Israel to start being part of the civilized nations,” Klein recalls Allaham telling him. “He said, I think it would be of great value if you would come to Qatar and talk to the Emir and other officials and push them to work in that direction. … He was asking me from September to December to go and I said no all the time.” Klein said he was under the impression that Allaham was working with Qatari investors purchasing real estate in the United States and that he had become close with members of the royal family. Klein added he didn’t know whether Allaham was actually getting paid for his Qatar-related work, though. “I didn’t ask him or frankly assume he was getting paid by Qatar,” says Klein. “I didn’t give it much thought.” Allaham told Tablet that he had started his work with Qatar focusing on real estate investments in the United States on behalf of his eventual FARA clients—who, according to his filings, were the Emir and his brother—but that his work became more advocacy-related over time.

Klein said he eventually went to Qatar because high-profile figures like Alan Dershowitz, Malcolm Hoenlein, and Mike Huckabee all decided to travel to the country around the same time, something he thought would lessen the relative importance of his own visit. He also told me he went with a number of pro-Israel objectives in mind, like quashing the release of an Al Jazeera documentary based on undercover footage collected inside of pro-Israel organizations in Washington, D.C. On June 25th, Nick Muzin, who had parted ways with his Qatari clients earlier in the month, tweeted, “Because of @MortonAKlein7’s visit to Qatar, @AlJazeera canned an anti-Semitic documentary, anti-Israel books were permanently removed from the Doha Book Fair, and Israeli athletes and fans will be welcome at the 2022 World Cup” last week.

On February 8th, Klein and I spoke for an article exploring the Qatari government’s relationship with the American Jewish community. During our interview Klein attempted to dispel the impression that the Qataris had paid him. He said that the trip to Doha was supposed to have been conducted in secret, and that he never wanted to publicly comment on it. “Only when it started leaking out that I was there did I feel I had to say things because there were really obnoxious rumors going around that I’m on their payroll, they paid me. They offered me no money. I received no money. Let me make it crystal clear. Had they offered me money I wouldn’t have gone no matter what.” During his time in Doha, the Qataris made just one request of him, Klein said. “The only thing they asked of me once I was there was to convince members of Congress to come to Qatar and see first hand that we’re not what they think we are. And I said I won’t do that until i see significant changes and progress in the issues we discussed.”

Allaham’s donations are to the ZOA, and not Klein himself. The money came from a lobbyist for Qatar, and there’s no evidence showing it came directly from Doha. Still, the ZOA was a target of Qatar’s outreach efforts in the US. In February, Klein and I talked about Rumaihi’s presence at the ZOA dinner. As Tablet’s article noted,

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.

According to an attendee at the gala, Rumaihi was seated at a table that Allaham had paid for, alongside Allaham’s family and rabbi; Mother Jones has also reported that Rumaihi was at the dinner at Allaham’s invitation. When reached by email, Allaham did not deny that Rumahi had in fact sat at a table he had paid for, and did not deny that either of the $50,000 payments disclosed in his FARA filings were in some way connected to the ZOA dinner. On-record, he emailed,

We are proud of the work that Mort Klein has done and all the other Jewish leaders working in collaboration with the Emir and other members of the Qatari Royal Family. Mr. Klein made great strides for the American Jewish community and Israel. These accomplishments, some public and some [that] will remain private go far beyond what many other leaders of the Jewish community and state officials have achieved with Qatar. In regards to the donations that were made, money went to important causes that are extremely dear to me and my family.

In a conversation with Tablet on June 27th, Allaham stressed that the $100,000 he gave to ZOA had been a personal donation made because of his admiration for the organization’s work. Although Allaham would not explain on-record why he would include this kind of a personal charitable contribution on FARA disclosure related to his work for a foreign client, he claimed that his efforts on the emirate’s behalf were successful in both moderating Doha’s policies and messaging and in improving the US’s relations with the country. “We did good for everybody,” Allaham said. “Everybody was a winner: The Jews, the Qataris, the United States.”

On June 21st, Klein told Tablet that the donations were in fact linked to the ZOA dinner. “Joey said he wants to buy two tables at our dinner and says I want to give $100,000,” Klein recalled. “I said the tables are $14,000. He said, this is the first gift.” Klein said he never asked Allaham why the $100,000 donation was structured as two $50,000 checks staggered over almost two months. “If i say to him well why aren’t you giving me the whole thing—what’s the term, don’t look a gift horse in the mouth? … Even if he doesn’t come through with the other 50, it’s a very nice gift.”

As Tablet reported, phone records disclosed over the course of discovery for the Broidy trial indicate that Allaham and Klein’s phone numbers exchanged over 1,000 calls between September and mid-May of 2018. Allaham didn’t deny this when asked about it two weeks ago, with a spokesperson telling Tablet that Klein and Allaham were “old friends who speak regularly on a variety of topics.”

Klein insists the 1,000 number is implausible but says that they did speak frequently during that period. “Five times a day? That’s ridiculous,” he said. “He did call me a lot and when he left a message I called him back.” Klein said that he didn’t want to be anything but respectful to a potential large donor. “I don’t have director of development,” he said of the ZOA. “I’m it.”

The ZOA is the furthest right of the U.S.’s mainstream pro-Israel organizations and was once one of the loudest voices highlighting Qatar’s alleged relationship with Hamas and other Islamist groups. For a few months, the ZOA also represented one of Doha’s most unlikely public diplomacy wins. For now, the ZOA wants to distance itself from Allaham and Qatar. On June 21st, Klein told me the ZOA would likely decide to return Allaham’s donations even though the organization is under no legal obligation to do so. “We don’t want any semblance of impropriety,” Klein said. “We’re almost surely going to give it back.” The next day, Klein told Jewish Insider that the ZOA would be returning the $100,000 to Allaham.

Even that hasn’t been enough to assuage all of the ZOA’s critics—some of whom are ideologically aligned with the group. Last week, Gregg Roman, the executive director of the ardently pro-Israel Middle East Forum, wrote an opinion piece in the Forward calling on the ZOA to “come clean” about its dealings with Allaham. Qatar is once again becoming a divisive issue among supporters of Israel—although for reasons that would have been difficult to foresee when Muzin, Allaham, and Rumaihi launched their outreach to American Jews last fall.

Armin Rosen is a staff writer for Tablet Magazine.