Franklin-Gate and the Jews

washington | Hours after CBS News first reported that federal officials were investigating a possible Israeli “mole” at the Pentagon, the first analysis hit the wires claiming that the emerging scandal

wouldn’t damage U.S.-Israel relations.

It was quick journalistic work, but it wasn’t worth the bytes it was written on. The plain fact is, the scandal, dubbed “Franklin-Gate” after the implicated Department of Defense official, will affect Jewish and pro-Israel interests in myriad ways even if the federal investigation fizzles and no charges are brought.

Any proof that Israel was spying on the Pentagon with the cooperation of AIPAC, the pro-Israel lobby, would be devastating both for Israel and for the Jewish community here, but few other than anti-Israel conspiracy theorists expect that result.

More likely is a confusing mess centering on the many gray areas created when two close allies share military and strategic information through a web of formal and informal contacts.

“In an open relationship like this, there are conversations, there are meetings and conferences all over the world, where Israelis and Americans, Jews and non-Jews, share soft intelligence,” said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League. “If the mere fact of people having lunch together results in an investigation, that’s very intimidating.”

Jewish leaders believe the leaks that produced the CBS story and the exaggerated talk of a mole may have been triggered by the bitter struggle between administration neoconservatives — many of them Jewish, many in the top ranks of the Pentagon organization chart — and the traditional conservatives and military and intelligence professionals who fear the neocons have led America into a military debacle in Iraq and want to do the same in Iran.

In particular, these forces have been critical of Douglas Feith, the undersecretary of defense for policy, a hawk’s hawk and the boss of the man at the epicenter of the controversy, Pentagon analyst Larry Franklin.

This week unnamed officials told reporters that the premature revelations had compromised their investigations, and that Franklin’s status remained “murky.” There could be arrests in the coming days and weeks, or there could be a protracted period of rumors and speculation but little hard information.

The New York Times reported on Tuesday, Aug. 31, that charges could be brought soon, possibly on something less than espionage.

But even if the investigation produces no arrests and no evidence AIPAC went beyond the bounds of legal lobbying, it has the potential to cause damage to Israel, to Jewish interests here and to U.S.-Israel relations.

The accusation of a “mole” — that term made sensational headlines, but it wasn’t borne out by later reporting — plays into the ongoing belief by many on both ends of the political spectrum that a cabal of Jewish neoconservatives led America into a destructive war in Iraq, not because of America’s interests but Israel’s.

The charge lacks credibility for several reasons, including President Bush’s obvious determination to topple Saddam Hussein from the earliest days of his administration and the fact that Israel never considered Iraq its most dangerous enemy.

But it has been persistent and damaging, and it is bound to gain new currency with this week’s barrage of news stories, some of which implied that pro-Israel neocons improperly gave Israel input into U.S. decision-making on Iraq, as well as Iran. As the story spun out in the press, the Iraq references faded, but they are unlikely to be forgotten by those eager to blame the Jewish state and its American friends.

The mix becomes even more dangerous because of signs America is tiring of the seemingly endless carnage in Iraq and the fact that the U.S. “victory” there isn’t igniting a democratic revolution across the Arab and Islamic world, after all.

There may be a growing longing for convenient scapegoats if public opinion continues to turn against the war, and this week’s reports offer up some traditional favorites: Israel and the Jews.

The scandal will refocus attention on a group of Jewish neoconservatives who have been polarizing figures both inside and outside government circles, including Feith and Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz.

The charges, even if unsubstantiated, could impede the widespread military cooperation between Washington and Jerusalem — ties that are even more important as the allies fight the terrorist forces that have targeted both nations.

The charges will also have a chilling effect on countless Jews serving in important government positions.

Many say life hasn’t been the same since the 1985 arrest of Jonathan Pollard, the young Navy intelligence analyst who provided documents to his Israeli handlers. The shadow of “dual loyalty” already hangs over every Jewish official with a security clearance; the new spy scandal ensures that it won’t lift anytime soon.

The scandal, regardless of the legal outcome, may complicate the daunting effort to limit Iran’s nuclear ambitions, which threaten both this country and Israel. It was a document on Iran planning that was supposedly passed by Franklin to an AIPAC official, according to press accounts.

Already, the Bush administration’s diminished credibility in the case of Iraq’s missing weapons of mass destruction means dwindling public support for any serious action against Iran, a much more immediate threat with a fast-moving nuclear weapons program and growing arsenal of missiles.

The new spy scandal is also bad news for the one American jailed for spying for Israel: Pollard, now in his 19th year of incarceration. This week’s stories will re-energize the military and intelligence officials who have worked so hard to prevent his release and make this president and the next one even warier about the political fallout from a Pollard pardon.

There is also the potential human tragedy of a non-Jew who cares about Israel whose reputation and career could be destroyed by a trial in the press, not the courts.

The real meaning of Franklin-gate can’t be assessed until the government reveals what it knows and — if there’s enough evidence — the case moves to the courts.

If there is evidence of improper actions by pro-Israel lobbyists and by Israeli officials, the results could badly undercut the good work done by years of pro-Israel activism and fan the fires of anti-Semitism based on the fallacious charge that Israel distorts U.S. policy to serve its own interests.

But even if the charges are quickly revealed as overblown, the fact that they have exploded in the middle of an emotionally charged presidential campaign and as protests proliferate over the Iraq war could adversely affect the Jewish community and Israel. Jewish leaders are worried — and they are right to be.