Then came a moment that was, for me, the most shocking experience I ever had during my years working for the United States government.
William Safire, the most influential New York Times columnist, phoned me in a rage. He told me that he knew for a fact that neither Levin nor I had drafted the letter. He said that he knew that the letter was written by an aide to the leader of the Labor Party opposition in Israel, Shimon Peres. He said that aide, one Yossi Beilin, had hand-delivered the text to me, and that I had convinced Levin to circulate it. He said that my goal was to unseat Shamir and replace him with Peres.
I almost laughed. The very idea that a Senate aide had such power was astounding. But then Safire asked if I thought it was appropriate for a Senate aide to be the agent of a foreign political party, and what would Levin think when he read about that in Safire’s column.
That was scary. As a Senate aide, I had sworn allegiance to the United States and the Constitution. I also had a security clearance. This could be serious.
I told Safire that I had written the draft and that Levin had (as is his wont) extensively edited it. I told him I had no idea who Beilin was (which was the truth). Safire then got really nasty and told me that he knew I was lying because he had the story on good authority (Israeli U.N. ambassador Binyamin Netanyahu and AIPAC’s number two guy, Steve Rosen, who was subsequently indicted for espionage). I said I didn’t care who he heard it from, it was a lie. Additionally, Levin had undertaken the initiative to help Israel because he thought that if Israel ruled out territorial withdrawal, the conflict would never end.
The call concluded with Safire backing down after warning me that if he ever found out I was lying, I would be “finished.” He said he would not write the column because — get this — in the end he believed me more than his sources.
And that was that. Nothing more happened with the Letter of 30, except that after the vicious attacks on Levin, few senators have challenged the Israeli government or AIPAC since.
So what’s the moral? It is this: Criticizing Israel is dangerous business. On what other issue would a New York Times columnist call a Senate staffer and threaten to destroy his career? None. And why was a New York Times columnist acting as if he was working for the Israeli government? Safire wasn’t a journalist that day; he essentially was a representative of the Israeli government.
Accordingly, is it any wonder the whole Congress abased itself the other day by jumping up and down and hurling love at Netanyahu? Who wants to mess with an 800-pound gorilla? Certainly not members of Congress.