Will Al Jazeera Air The Lobby Before AIPAC Meets?

The Israel lobby has a lot of levers it can push and pull to curry favorable news coverage from media organizations. These range from denying access to the limited pool of top-tier pundits and Israeli government officials, to crippling economic boycotts. This power is visible in the battle to punish and shutter Al Jazeera, the Qatari state-funded news organization.

Al Jazeera’s undercover investigative series The Lobby stunned both U.K. and US viewers last year. The product of a six-month 2016 undercover investigation, the four-part series revealed the Israeli embassy’s close guidance of allegedly "independent" pro-Israel UK domestic organizations, unfounded accusations of anti-Semitism lodged against Labour Party members, and coordinated efforts to take down lawmakers deemed hostile to Israel. The series led to the dismissal of Shai Masot, a shadowy Israeli embassy official profiled in part four of the series, and apologies from the Israeli embassy.

Less well known is that concurrent to the UK investigation, another undercover reporter was hard at work penetrating Israel’s Washington lobby. James Anthony Kleinfeld, a British citizen, interned at The Israel Project. The Israel Project works as a quasi-public relations agency for Israel, using its cartel-like access to sought-after Israeli officials to shape media appearances and influence who can appear opposite Israel’s media luminaries. The behind-the-scenes activities of The Israel Project’s chief, former American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) spokesperson Josh Block, to condition and ultimately quash the appearance of Rula Jebreal on VOA, were exposed via a FOIA request in 2016.

Kleinfeld reportedly gained access to The Israel Project’s donor information by asking to work in donor development, a position not normally given to interns. Not much is known about the source of the nonprofit 501(c)(3) The Israel Project’s funding. Under the leadership of founder Jennifer Laszlo-Mizrahi, donations grew from $1.8 million in 2003 and peaked at nearly $20 million in 2010. Donations fell to $8.7 million in 2016 after The Israel Project received stinging rebukes from more established Israel lobbying organizations over its claims to be a one-stop shop leading all major branches of Israel advocacy. The Internal Revenue Service claims it cannot locate any of the publicly-releasable (PDF) documents The Israel Project presented in its application for tax-exempt status or explain what social welfare purpose it allegedly serves.

Almost immediately following the airing of The Lobby, the Government of Qatar, which owns Al Jazeera, suddenly faced an intense coordinated campaign accusing it of supporting terrorism, being too close to Iran and demanding that Al Jazeera be shut down. The "Qatar diplomatic crisis" is not easily traceable directly back to Israel or the lobby’s intense displeasure over the UK investigative report or to fears that the US edition would be released. The countries that first cut off diplomatic relations with Qatar were Saudi Arabia, UAE, Bahrain and Egypt.

However, the Qatari government soon came to its own conclusion that exiting the "crisis" demanded wooing the western pro-Israel lobby. The Emirate sent a series of invitations to Mort Klein, head of the Zionist Organization of America, one of the oldest Israel advocacy organizations in the US, to visit the Emirate beginning in September of 2017. Klein lobbied the Obama administration to cancel Qatar Airways landing rights in the United States to escalate "the crisis." The airline’s last reported annual revenue was $10.6 billion, with $538 million in profits and 43,000 employees. Other Israel advocates, such as Alan Dershowitz, visited the Emirate along with leaders of the American Jewish Congress and Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. Many demanded that Qatar cut ties to Hamas, the Taliban and Iran. But this may have been cover for their principal aim – to shutter Al Jazeera and keep the US series from airing. Work is currently underway to convince the Department of Justice to order Al Jazeera to register as a foreign agent, limiting its access to facilities and US government officials.

Such activities have generated back-page stories claiming that Al Jazeera finally promised the wave of Israel lobbyists it would not air the now somewhat aging The Lobby US edition. The most sensible time to release it would be just before AIPAC convenes in Washington in early March.

But many in the pro-Israel ecosystem grew alarmed when Al Jazeera sent letters requesting comments on its US investigative series to Israel lobby organizations in early February. Such letters are commonplace before big investigative pieces air. Qatari Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed al-Thani claimed Qatar’s constitution forbids any interference in the media. Whether Al Jazeera finally broadcasts the US series of The Lobby before AIPAC convenes will reveal whether it remains true to its upstart, "take no prisoners" reporting, or has become as beholden to orchestrated Israel lobby pressure campaigns as mainstream US media organizations and its fellow government-owned outlets like Voice of America.

Grant F. Smith is the director of the Institute for Research: Middle Eastern Policy in Washington and the author of the 2016 book, Big Israel: How Israel’s Lobby moves America and co-organizer of "The Israel Lobby & American Policy 2018" conference on March 2.