WASHINGTON - A former director of foreign policy at the capital's most powerful pro-Israel lobby, Steven Rosen, who over the years has forged relationships with top players in both Republican and Democratic administrations, has become a target in a multi-year probe by the FBI revolving around meetings with a Pentagon Iran analyst, and the organization he once helped lead has fired him.
Mr. Rosen is entangled in an investigation into an alleged conspiracy to funnel classified information to the state of Israel. On June 13, a sealed indictment against a Pentagon Iran analyst, Lawrence Franklin, was made public that included information about three meetings Mr. Rosen had with Mr. Franklin in 2003.
Last month at the annual policy conference of Mr. Rosen's onetime employer, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the group's executive director, Howard Kohr, distanced Aipac from Mr. Rosen and a former Aipac analyst, Keith Weissman - another figure in the FBI probe - when he assured members that no "current employees" were targets of the investigation.
Mr. Rosen, though no longer an Aipac employee, was never simply another staffer there. According to former colleagues, rivals, and friends, Mr. Rosen moved with ease in the corridors of power, whether in Congress or the White House. His personal history is not only intertwined with America's evolution of policy on the Middle East, but with many of its architects.
He was instrumental in persuading Congress and the White House to sanction foreign companies that do business in Iran. Mr. Rosen also played a key role in ending early unofficial contacts between America and the Palestine Liberation Organization, and then later persuading conservatives to support a process to legitimize Yasser Arafat.
But Mr. Rosen's biggest and most problematic accomplishment was his role in persuading his organization - famous for its sway in Congress - to begin lobbying the executive branch. A senior official in the Clinton and Carter administrations, Stuart Eizenstat, told The New York Sun in an interview last month that Aipac certainly had access to the White House before Mr. Rosen created the executive-branch lobbying operation. But that access had its limits.
"When Aipac wanted a meeting, they got it," he said. "But under Steve, they extended their reach into the agencies at the working and senior-expert level and not just the White House. A lot of decisions in the government, having to do with procurement, aid decisions, are shaped in the agencies before they get to the White House. Having extraordinary knowledge where the next procurement is coming, it provides the kind of advance information you need to shape policy. That was the genius of Steve's vision."
Mr. Rosen, 62, stands at about 5 feet 9 inches. His boyish face is framed with white hair and lit by an easy smile. He talks in a slight New York accent and speeds up his speech when excited about something. Married six times, Mr. Rosen has had a turbulent personal life. Today he is back together with his first wife, whom he married in 1962 and divorced a year later. "Believe it or not we did not see each other until 2002," he told the Sun.
During an interview last month, Mr. Rosen refused to discuss the details of the FBI probe against him for legal reasons. He said that he became interested in Israel as a doctoral student at the Maxwell School of Diplomacy at Syracuse University. At the time, Mr. Rosen was studying international relations and examining what are known as "persistent conflicts," such as the dispute between India and Pakistan over Kashmir. Mr. Rosen began studying the Arab-Israeli conflict and read volumes about the Jewish state.
"When I immersed myself in the case, I found myself overwhelmed by the story of Israel," he said. "It was as if everything I had done up to then was black-and-white, but now it was in Technicolor."
Following the Yom Kippur War, Mr. Rosen in 1973 took his first trip to the Jewish state. The bond deepened. "My impressions of American Jews were something like the neurosis of Woody Allen," he said. "But Israelis were so unneurotic. They stood tall and proud."
Growing up in Cedarhurst on Long Island, Mr. Rosen was not raised as a Zionist. His father, Leon, was a member of the Communist Party from the 1930s through 1944. Leon Rosen formally quit the party after writing a critique in 1944 when the Soviets muscled out American leader Earl Browder. Mr. Rosen says his parents supported Josef Stalin up until Nikita Khrushchev's famous secret 1956 speech denouncing the dictator's cult of personality.
"At the time he was startled," Mr. Rosen said. But the Rosens also pursued many progressive causes that look better in retrospect. For example, his father helped found his town's chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
"I am very proud of them. It does not mean I agreed with them," Mr. Rosen said of his family. "In high school it did not correspond to the world I saw when I went out there. I thought the Soviet Union was a threatening country, the theory that they were only defending themselves from a capitalist threat lacked credibility."
Lacking college degrees, Mr. Rosen's parents joined him when he enrolled at Hofstra University in 1961. Steven Rosen took a liking to academic work and excelled in his field of political science and international relations, co-authoring a textbook that was used well into the 1980s.
In his first teaching job, at the University of Pittsburgh, Mr. Rosen still showed liberal leanings. He opposed the war in Vietnam, but recalled how he began to split with the protesters. At one anti-war rally in 1969, Mr. Rosen said he followed a speaker who called for the crowd to bring the entire house down. "If the house comes down, it will fall on our head," he remembered saying.
When Mr. Rosen took a professorship at Brandeis University, his politics became increasingly conservative and pro-Israel, he said. It was there that he tutored a young student named Thomas Friedman, who went on to become the New York Times foreign affairs columnist. Mr. Friedman attended Mr. Rosen's Middle East study group, which he dubbed the Middle East war policy group, Mr. Rosen said, in part because it was an alternative to another group focused on encouraging peace in the region.
Mr. Rosen said that in the academy, he encountered a reluctance among his peers to take the perspective of Israel, even at Brandeis: "Here you have this Jewish university. You would think they would encourage a pro-Israel perspective, but the opposite was true."
After Brandeis, Mr. Rosen went on to teach at the Australian National University. His academic work led to an offer from the Rand Corporation in 1978, the only post in which Mr. Rosen ever held a security clearance. There, in 1980, one of his summer researchers was a bright graduate student - Condoleezza Rice.
It was from Rand that Mr. Rosen went to Aipac, where he was hired on July 1, 1982. His role was as the organization's first director of research. One of his tasks was to oversee the production of policy papers. An early title Mr. Rosen co-authored in that capacity was "The Importance of the West Bank and Gaza to Israel's Security." Another was titled, "How Americans Feel About Israel," and consisted of a 52-page digest of public opinion polls conducted during the late 1970s and early 1980s that analyzed American opinion on everything from arms sales to Arab nations to whether American citizens considered Israel an ally. A piece Mr. Rosen penned with Amy Kaufman Goott explored "the campaign to discredit Israel." The essay included one- to two page digests on what it identified as key figures in the campaign. Those individuals ranged from a Massachusetts Institute of Technology linguistics professor, Noam Chomsky, to an Arab-American activist, James Zogby.
Soon after he was hired to run Aipac's research division, Mr. Rosen recruited one of his former Australia National University students, Martin Indyk, who later became America's ambassador to Israel under President Clinton and also served as assistant secretary of state for Near East affairs.
Throughout the 1980s, Mr. Rosen helped persuade Congress and members of the Reagan administration that the time was not ripe for relations with Yasser Arafat's Palestine Liberation Organization. Mr. Indyk said that he and Mr. Rosen carefully researched the dimensions of a State Department back channel to the PLO in 1984, work that paid dividends a year later when Congress adopted, at Aipac's urging, legislation conditioning any American recognition of the PLO on Arafat's acceptance of three conditions: renouncing terror, recognizing Israel's right to exist, and adhering to the original U.N. Security Council resolution that allowed for the Jewish state. That legislation was called the Levine amendment, named for its sponsor, Rep. Mel Levine, a Democrat of California.
The Levine amendment established the specific political conditions under which America would ultimately work with Arafat. When it came to the Oslo Accords, though, Mr. Rosen went from being an obstacle to American diplomacy with the PLO to acting as one of its boosters.
A few weeks before the handshake between Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat on the White House lawn, Mr. Rosen was sent to the Heritage Foundation to help sell the negotiations to the conservative think tank that had been historically skeptical of the PLO's commitment to peace.
"Here are all Reagan Republicans who spent the 1980s absorbing the idea that Israel was the stalwart ally of the United States and the PLO certainly were a bunch of pro-communist radical no-goodniks," said David Twersky, a former Washington bureau chief of the Forward. "Now comes this radical turnaround. Along comes Steve Rosen, who sold this view to the Reagan people in the 1980s, here he is giving an extremely articulate argument about why this is in Israel's interest to do what it is about to do with the PLO - the Oslo Accords which took place a week or two later."
Mr. Twersky compared the moment of Mr. Rosen, who had spent so much political capital in the previous decade erecting barriers to recognition of the PLO, to a Communist Party member explaining to the faithful the Hitler-Stalin Pact. "It was an amazing achievement what he did that day," he said.
During the Oslo process, the president of the Zionist Organization of America, Morton Klein, said Mr. Rosen tried to convince him of the merits of the negotiations.
"Steve Rosen was a forceful advocate for the Oslo process, a forceful advocate that Arafat was someone we should do business with. He always made it conspicuously clear how my differing views were at least inappropriate," Mr. Klein said. "From my conversations, it was clear that he was an important factor in determining policy at Aipac and he relished his aggressive role in promoting the Aipac policy. He would always highlight our differences and tell us why we were wrong."
In the interview with The New York Sun, Mr. Rosen described himself as "post-neoconservative": "After a while, if you spend enough time doing this, even the biggest hawk has to concede there is no military solution to the conflict."
Mr. Indyk remembered Mr. Rosen's effectiveness in pressing the Clinton administration to punish Iranian behavior by threatening sanctions against foreign companies that did business with the Islamic Republic. "Steve's biggest accomplishment was the Iran sanctions," Mr. Indyk said. Those sanctions, combined with an executive order banning large American investment in Iran, became the stick that the Clinton administration in its final year offered to lift - if Iran ended its support of terrorism, embraced the Oslo process, and came clean on its nuclear program.
Mr. Rosen's interest in Iran led him to Mr. Franklin, according to the indictment unsealed this month. According to the document, Mr. Franklin and Mr. Rosen, referred to as co-conspirator no. 1, discussed policy toward a Middle East country, widely believed to be Iran, and the threat Iran posed to American soldiers and Israeli officers in Iraq. Mr. Rosen's decision to pass that information on to a Washington Post reporter and an official at the Israeli embassy here is the basis of the charges the federal government is widely believed to be preparing against the former Aipac official.
But, for Mr. Rosen's defenders, the entire affair has the potential of criminalizing everyday behavior in the nation's capital. When asked for a reaction to the matter, Mr. Indyk, who professed to inside information about the case other than news reports, was disdainful. He said, "The notion that this was all not kosher, treyf, when everyone does this in Washington, but Aipac does it more effectively - well, it's ridiculous."