The dread felt by Israeli and American Jewish officials was as rooted as the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, as fresh as the headline that they feared could break any minute. Could Israel have used its client American Israel Public Affairs Committee lobbying group as a conduit to receive classified information from a Pentagon analyst or the National Security Agency?
Such was the implication of a flurry of media reports which emerged last month.
Stated differently, could an Israeli agency have been so unwise as to have, in a single stroke, risked blunting the efficacy of AIPAC, casting American Jews in the shadow of accusations of dual loyalty and undue influence on U.S. policymaking, and endangering the Jewish state's only indispensable alliance, its lifeblood tie to Washington.
Israel says no. AIPAC says the same.
And although from the start the reports have offered much smoke and little actual fire, the case surrounding Pentagon analyst Lawrence Franklin presented Israel and AIPAC with the diplomatic equivalent of an unexploded cluster bomb.
Even as the case recedes from the headlines, it could do significant harm to Israel in a large number of ways, whether the allegations are true or not.
- Conspiracy Theory and anti-Semitism
"Even if the present affair pales, shrinks and fades away, it can supply fuel to the conspiracy theory, one that is widespread in certain sectors of the American media," said political scientist Avi Ben-Zvi, citing maverick Republican rightist Pat Buchanan and other strident right and left-wing critics of Israeli influence on American policymaking.
According to the theory, Ben-Zvi said, Jews in key positions in the administration, among them suspect analyst Franklin's neo-conservative - and Jewish - superiors, Deputy Defense Minister Paul Wolfowitz and Douglas Feith, a senior aide to Donald Rumsfeld on Iran and Iraq policy, represent "an enthusiastically pro-Israeli group diverting American policy to a direction which serves non-American goals - manipulating and directing policy."
"It sounds almost like the Protocols of the Elders of Zion," Ben-Zvi said.
The post-Saddam quagmire in Iraq has only intensified the sensitivity of the issue, as some leftists have argued that only Israel has benefited from a war which a "cabal" of Jewish neo-conservatives drove into being.
- Closing off sources of shared intelligence
Well-placed former members of the Israeli intelligence community have said that there are as many as thousands of contacts a year between American and Israeli figures, colleagues in a number of fields, in which non-classified but potentially valuable information is exchanged.
In the wake of the Franklin case, American officials, it is feared, will now shy away from contacts with Israelis, long a key source of information-sharing.
Moreover, the allegations tying Franklin, AIPAC, and Israel come at a time of strained relations between the Central Intelligence Agency and the Mossad, a tension that may have scaled down CIA cooperation with Israel of late.
The sharing of information is vital to both sides, as the United States has long received from Israel clues gleaned from the Middle East, while the Jewish state has relied on American sources for early warnings of potential attacks on Israel or Israeli or Jewish-linked interests abroad.
- Undermining AIPAC
Of all the weapons in Israel's policy arsenal, few have been more consistently potent and reliable than the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.
"Apart from our direct military strength, our relations with the United States, in which AIPAC plays a very strong part, are our second-ranking strategic asset," said former Israeli ambassador to Washington Itamar Rabinovich.
It has been suggested that a key source of AIPAC's strength is its widespread image of unparalleled clout in affecting foreign policy regarding Israel, an image that the affair could sap.
In fact, AIPAC's very success in lobbying for Israel's interests has also rendered the group, which boasts 65,000 members in all 50 states, vulnerable to charges of undue influence in Washington decision making.
Late last month, FBI agents probing the Franklin case are said to have questioned two senior AIPAC officials, its foreign policy affairs director and its specialist on Iran, the Gulf area and oil-related issues.
- Compromising efforts to curb Iran
According to press reports, Franklin, a lead Iran hand in the Pentagon's policy planning office, is alleged to have given two AIPAC officials a draft of a presidential order on U.S.-Iran policy, a draft which then allegedly reached an Israeli diplomat.
The accounts said that FBI agents , using wiretaps and other surveillance methods, were monitoring a meeting between AIPAC officials and Naor Gilon, chief of political affairs at the Israeli Embassy in Washington, when Franklin unexpectedly appeared and joined the group.
Unnamed U.S. officials were quoted as saying that the alleged document contained a range of proposals aimed at destabilizing the regime in Tehran.
Now, in the wake of shadowy reports on Franklin - a key Pentagon advocate of regime change in Tehran - there is a sense that the case could swing Washington's post-election policy balance, in favor of those officials who argue for a softer approach toward Iran.
"Coming after Iraq, this could take away momentum for a regime-change policy in a second Bush term," Middle East affairs expert Kenneth Katzman told the Forward newspaper last week.
The affair could also blunt a longtime Israeli campaign to persuade Washington to marshal its clout to counter Iran's widely suspected efforts to build nuclear weapons.
- Estranging American Jewry
A major figure in the U.S. Jewish community responded last month with an explicit sense of relief on hearing that analyst Franklin was not Jewish.
Nonetheless, the affair has already stirred implied questions of dual loyalty and divided allegiance among American Jews, until recently a long-buried staple of native U.S. anti-Semitism.
The implied allegations of dual loyalty could have an effect on how American Jews themselves make career choices, persuading them to steer clear of government work for fear of falling prey to suspicions.
"Even if the story evaporates away, its unpleasant 'deposits' will not," Rabinovich argued. "Every affair of this type which fosters the murky atmosphere [of suspicions of divided allegiance] makes more people ask themselves if they really want to hire a Jewish analyst or other professional."
- Souring ties with Washington
George W. Bush has often been expansive on matters related to Israel, lauding Ariel Sharon as a man of peace, inviting the prime minister to the White House again and again.
But the administration's silence over the FBI probe - reports of which threatened for a time to shadow what turned out to be a Bush victory lap at the Republican Convention - registered loud and clear in Israel, which fervently hopes that the alleged spying affair will not render administration officials reluctant to appear overly pro-Israel.
"The most important connection is that of the war in Iraq, in which Israel is viewed as having dragged the United States into the war," Rabinovich said.
"At the same time, there are figures in the American intelligence community, or on its margins, who for years have disliked the intimacy of the ties, and disliked the fact that Israel both receives U.S. aid to develop weapons systems and sells weapons systems, which may compete with American systems."
- Restirring the Pollard affair
In a nadir of U.S.-Israel relations. Jonathan Pollard, a naval analyst, passed highly classified American material to Israeli intelligence agents until he was seized in the mid-80s.
"Although all of the information currently available shows that this isn't a new Pollard affair, in certain respects 'the Franklin affair' could prove more dangerous for the organized Jewish community," Haaretz Washington correspondent Nathan Guttman said.
"When the case of Jonathan Pollard erupted 19 years ago, it was easier for Jews to distance themselves from him and to claim that the man was a lone operative, not someone who could tarnish the entire community with the 'dual loyalty' brush.
"Now the situation is more problematic, not because of Larry Franklin, but because of AIPAC's role."
- A Congressional investigation
A top ranking Republican member of the House of Representatives, Majority Whip Roy Blunt of Missouri, has indicated that Congress could at some point launch its own probe into the Franklin affair.
At the same time, congressional sources have said that no inquiry is likely unless the FBI turns up substantive evidence of wrongdoing.
- A pattern of allegations
A new challenge facing Israeli officials is the difficulty of responding to news reports which are long on accusations but short on substance. A recent Los Angeles Times report stated:
"There is a huge, aggressive, ongoing set of Israeli activities directed against the United States," said a former intelligence official who was familiar with the latest FBI probe and who recently left government.
"Anybody who worked in counterintelligence in a professional capacity will tell you the Israelis are among the most aggressive and active countries targeting the United States."
- An anti-neocon backlash
Some U.S. Jewish leaders have suggested that the Franklin affair was part of an wider campaign by CIA and State Department officials to sandbag, discredit, and ultimately dethrone the neo-conservatives in positions of influence.
Some believe that the neocon influence has given the Sharon government unprecedented access and understanding in the administration, a status they fear could be blunted by a backlash against neocon thought.