American pro-Israel lobby girds for Al Jazeera exposé
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American pro-Israel lobby girds for Al Jazeera exposé

Jewish leaders reportedly claim Qatar promised to block TV series, but Qatari FM says there will be 'no interference' in media issues

Al Jazeera staff work at their TV station in Doha, Qatar, on June 8, 2017. (AP Photo/Malak Harb)
Al Jazeera staff work at their TV station in Doha, Qatar, on June 8, 2017. (AP Photo/Malak Harb)

American Jewish leaders are bracing themselves for a documentary series made by the Al Jazeera network expected to claim that pro-Israel groups in Washington are helping Israel to identify and discredit US citizens whom they see as anti-Israel, including supporters of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign.

Senior pro-Israel activists in the US capital were surprised last week to receive a request by the network for comment on the documentary after having received what they claimed was a promise from the Qatari authorities that the series would not see the light of day, the Haaretz daily reported Thursday.

“Al Jazeera is in the final stages of preparing a documentary concerning the role of pro-Israel advocacy groups in the United States,” the network said in an email dated February 2 and obtained by the Washington Examiner. “The documentary will investigate how such groups secure support for Israel in Congress and how they have been drawn into Israel’s covert campaign to defeat BDS, the movement to boycott, divest and impose sanctions on Israel.”

The email added that the network had “uncovered evidence, which suggests that this campaign may well involve these groups working with Israel to collect intelligence on and discredit US citizens who support BDS, as well as others who are perceived as challenging Israel.”

It gave the Jewish organizations until February 22 to respond.

The Jewish magazine Tablet reported in January of last year that the Israeli embassy in the US; the nongovernmental organization The Israel Project; and the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a think tank, were likely to be targeted in the program.

The organizations were caught off guard in the wake of a promise said to have been conveyed to them from the Qatari authorities in October — and confirmed to Haaretz by five sources from various Jewish organizations — that Doha would ensure the documentary was not aired. That promise followed a series of high-level talks between Qataris and senior pro-Israel activists in Washington — part of an ongoing Qatari push to improve relations with the US Jewish community following last year’s move by Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states to sever diplomatic ties with Doha.

The four-part series about the pro-Israel lobby in the US capital is based on the work of an Al Jazeera investigative reporter who was sent to Washington in 2016 and worked under the assumed name Antoine Kleinfeld, according to Tablet.

In October, an Al Jazeera editor acknowledged planting the undercover reporter inside pro-Israel organizations in Washington, DC.

Qatar’s Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani attends the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) summit at Bayan palace in Kuwait City on December 5, 2017. (Giuseppe CACACE / AFP)

The reporter, whose real name is James Anthony Kleinfeld and who was described by Tablet as a pro-Palestinian filmmaker, obtained work at several pro-Israel organizations, interviewed dozens of Jewish pro-Israel activists, won access to donors, hosted minor officials from the Israeli embassy at his home, and shot dozens of hours of video. The reporter left Washington suddenly in January 2017 and has not been heard from since.

“Last summer, a spritely presence enlivened the small and often dull circles of Washington’s Israel-advocacy community,” Tablet reported. “A young man named Antoine Kleinfeld arrived from Oxford, where he was a student. He spoke with a tony North London accent and dressed crisply. He was fluent in six languages, including Yiddish and Hebrew, and regaled his new friends with stories about his hobby, international hitchhiking, which had taken him, he said, to 80 countries the world over.

“It was precisely the sort of pastime, costly and eccentric, for which the British upper classes are known, and Kleinfeld, true to form, seemed the perfect gentleman, throwing parties in his lavish apartment and ingratiating himself by sending thoughtful notes and text messages to everyone he met. Over several months, between June of 2016 and January of this year, he cultivated a relationship with several pro-Israel organizations in D.C., becoming one of the town’s best-liked Zionist activists.”

Qatar’s image-building campaign

Last August, the Qataris hired Nick Muzin, an Orthodox Jew, to help improve their image among Jewish leaders in Washington, Haaretz reported.

Nick Muzin. (Courtesy of Muzin, via JTA)

Muzin, a former senior adviser to conservative Republican senators Ted Cruz and Tim Scott, organized meetings between the Qataris and influential Jewish leaders, especially from the pro-settler Jewish right-wing.

Some of those meetings took place in Doha, and others in New York when the Qatari emir was in town for United Nations business.

In recent months, the Qataris have been courting the Donald Trump administration intensively. Last month, the US president even thanked Qatar’s ruler for “action to counter terrorism and extremism in all forms.”

During their discussions with the Jewish leaders, the Qataris reportedly reassured the pro-Israel activists that they did not support Hamas, the terror organization in control of the Gaza Strip, and were coordinating efforts to rehabilitate the enclave with Israel.

In an example of al-Jazeera coverage, Ahmed Daqamseh, a former Jordanian soldier who killed 7 Israeli schoolgirls, speaks to the network after his release from jail, March 12, 2017. (Al-Jazeera/MEMRI screenshot)

The complaints raised by the Jewish leaders about Al Jazeera’s portrayal of Israel intensified after the network announced its intention in October to run the series about the pro-Israel lobby in Washington. The leaders accused Al Jazeera of anti-Semitism and of running a secret spy operation on American soil.

Noah Pollack, executive director of the Committee for Israel, a lobbying group, reportedly told Muzin that Qatar’s image would suffer massive damage if the series was aired. Muzin passed the message on and replied that his masters would ensure the program would not be broadcast, Haaretz reported. The Qataris reportedly did not put the promise into writing.

Zionist Organization of America (ZOA) president Morton A. Klein (Joseph Savetsky/courtesy of ZOA)

The Qatari image-building campaign continued at full steam, with Jewish public figures such as the lawyer Alan Dershowitz and Zionist Organization of America president Morton Klein being flown to Doha.

It was Klein who just some six months ago called for Qatar Airways to be banned from landing in US airports because of its support for Hamas.

The Jewish organizations thought the situation was under control until last week when several of them received the email from Al Jazeera, the Haaretz report said.

Muzin, according to the report, told them that there had been a misunderstanding and that the Qatari authorities were still intent on keeping their promise.

Foreign Minister of Qatar Mohammed bin Abdulrahman bin Jassim Al-Thani speaks with his Russian counterpart during their meeting in Moscow on June 10, 2017 (AFP PHOTO / Yuri KADOBNOV)

But last week, Qatar’s foreign minister reportedly said in Washington that Qatari law forbade the authorities from interfering in media affairs.

Responding to a Haaretz reporter’s question about the ostensible promise that the documentary would not be screened, al-Thani said, “Qatar’s law prohibits the government from intervening in the media. If someone has a claim about Al Jazeera, he should turn to the media regulations organizations.”

In a statement quoted by the Washington Examiner, Noah Pollack said, “Let’s not mince words about what this was — a well-funded, professional espionage operation carried out by Qatar on American soil.

“Its purpose is to cast American Jews engaged in perfectly normal political activity as secret conspirators with the Israeli government, an old anti-Semitic trope. Infiltrating American political organizations using fake names and hidden cameras may sound legitimate in Doha, but I suspect Americans, and the current administration, will take a very different view of this disgraceful behavior.”

Last year, the UK’s official media watchdog, Ofcom, rejected a complaint against an earlier Al Jazeera documentary that exposed an Israeli embassy official attempting to influence British lawmakers. Ofcom said the network’s reporting, which led to the resignation of Shai Masot, who was filmed plotting to “take down” British lawmakers seen as unfriendly to Israel, was not anti-Semitic.

Rather, Ofcom concluded, the program was “a serious investigative documentary which explored the actions of the Israeli Embassy and, in particular, its then Senior Political Officer Shai Masot and his links to several political organizations that promote a pro-Israel viewpoint.”

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