White House

Steve Bannon’s man in the Middle East

Aaron Klein is the bureau chief for Breitbart Jerusalem and a senior investigative reporter for the influential conservative outlet. He is based in Israel. Photo taken on March 17, 2017.
Aaron Klein is the bureau chief for Breitbart Jerusalem and a senior investigative reporter for the influential conservative outlet. He is based in Israel. Photo taken on March 17, 2017. McClatchy

When Donald Trump named Steve Bannon his chief strategist, backlash from Jewish leaders was swift amid fears that the ex-Breitbart News boss would bring white nationalist sympathies to the White House.

So in one of his first interviews on the new job, Bannon tried to quiet those concerns by invoking something most people had never heard of: “Breitbart Jerusalem.”

“Breitbart is the most pro-Israel site in the United States of America,” Bannon told The Wall Street Journal. “I have Breitbart Jerusalem, which I have Aaron Klein run with about 10 reporters there.”

It’s a line that Bannon and his allies have used repeatedly since his appointment, turning to the fledgling media operation as a shield against suggestions that he, and the administration by extension, are tolerant of anti-Semitism. It’s an accusation rooted in Bannon’s praise for the so-called “alt-right,” a movement associated with white supremacists and neo-Nazis.

And Klein, Bannon’s choice to lead Breitbart’s Middle East outpost, is playing his part, emerging as a vocal validator for Bannon while building the controversial outlet’s international brand.

On a Wednesday afternoon in March, Klein was found running Breitbart Jerusalem operations from his luxurious three-story apartment located, notably, not in Jerusalem but in Tel Aviv, the most liberal, cosmopolitan city in Israel. As storm clouds gathered over the Mediterranean, which was visible from his airy kitchen, Klein sipped a Diet Coke and alternated between expounding on the opportunities for Breitbart Jerusalem in the Trump era and tending to his dog, a black and white papillon named Uzi—for the gun.

“We have major influence right now politically,” said Klein, who also makes the 45-mile trek to Jerusalem multiple times a week to report.

“Our platform skyrocketed since the election. It increased in the last year, I would say. Around the time of the campaign,” he said. “With the rise of Trump and the rise of Breitbart.”

Journey from the fringe

Aaron Klein grew up in Philadelphia, the oldest of 10 children in a modern Orthodox Jewish family.

As editor of a student newspaper at Yeshiva University, he covered the school administration aggressively, leading to a dispute over whether the university was hiding copies of the paper—a dust-up that received New York Times coverage.

He was also captivated by international news—in particular, rising Islamic extremism—and as a student reporter, he traveled to London for a conference that was hosted by radical preacher Omar Bakri Mohammed and devoted to terrorism and Osama bin Laden. (His mother didn’t find out about the adventure until later, and “she was definitely not at all happy about it,” he said.)

The cleric would later be banned from Britain, but he was willing, at the time, to be interviewed by Klein, who penned a piece in publications including the Jerusalem Post headlined, “My weekend with the enemy.” It published before the terrorist attacks of September 2001, and Klein considers it an exposé on extremist thought.

“They don’t disguise their ideology,” he said of terrorists.

It was the start of a career that for years would keep him on the fringe of conservative media.

After college, what Klein calls “the whole talking with terrorists thing” became a hallmark of his reporting. It drove his work both as an Israel-based reporter for WorldNetDaily, a right-wing site that has pushed its share of conspiracy theories, and for his still-running radio broadcast, on which he has also zeroed in on stories like the controversy over the ultimately failed Ground Zero Mosque.

For years, he and Bannon traveled in the same circles, holding shared beliefs about the rise of what Klein pointedly calls, “radical Islamic terrorism.”

“We’re totally on the same page as far as our vision for the Middle East, the war on terror,” he said.

Bannon ultimately brought him on board a year and a half ago after courting him over emails and phone calls.

“Steve Bannon was very happy when he was able to hire him,” said one Bannon associate who spoke with Bannon at the time of Klein’s hiring. “…Even though he worked at WND, he wasn’t considered a lunatic.”

Bannon told Klein that Breitbart would “grow exponentially,” and that “it gets a lot more mainstream exposure,” Klein recalled.

But most importantly, Bannon promised resources.

Now, Breitbart Jerusalem, which is published only in English and is aimed at Americans and English-speaking Israelis, employs three full-time reporters, including Klein; several part-time reporters, two editors and two full-time researchers, including Klein’s brother, Joshua, who travels back and forth between Israel and the U.S.

The outlet approaches Middle Eastern news from a staunchly conservative pro-Israel perspective, working to counter what Klein calls anti-Israel bias in broader media coverage. For example, Breitbart Jerusalem stories routinely note that “Some of Judaism’s holiest sites are located in the West Bank and eastern Jerusalem”—but often don’t mention the fact that those areas are also hotly contested by Palestinians and much of the international community.

And like his Breitbart colleagues in the United States, Klein sometimes uses the term “fake news” to dismiss stories that are critical of Trump.

Expanding the Breitbart brand

Breitbart Jerusalem is not remotely as influential as Breitbart proper. Indeed, several veterans of Israeli diplomatic circles said they didn’t know Breitbart even had a bureau in Israel.

“I can’t remember hearing an Israeli ask me if I’d read a Breitbart piece,” added Daniel Shapiro, former U.S. ambassador to Israel during President Barack Obama’s tenure and now a senior fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv.

Klein said the Breitbart Jerusalem platform is growing in influence along with the rest of the organization in the Trump era, and the outlet has recently landed interviews with prominent American and Middle Eastern officials. On the day Klein talked to McClatchy, Breitbart Jerusalem published an interview with former Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon.

Klein has big hopes for increasing Breitbart Jerusalem’s video focus, seeing a “great opportunity for really hot video here in the Middle East,” as he also maintains his practice of interviewing extremists, often with the help of a colleague, Ali Waked, who speaks Arabic.

Yet for now, the operation is a skeletal one, lacking even a headquarters. Klein lives and writes in Tel Aviv – “It has a vacation resort feel even though I’m here in the heart of the larger Middle East,” he said, as sun showers doused his balcony and a sea breeze blew through the apartment. He said that if the organization were to build a headquarters, it would be in Jerusalem, Israel’s seat of government.

Klein is open about his personal views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and they fall within the mainstream of Israeli society. Theoretically, he supports the creation of “a Palestinian entity/state on some level” through negotiations, under the right conditions, and in the meantime supports assistance for Palestinian economic development.

But Klein is no mainstream reporter, though he clearly doesn’t abhor them the way some other right-wing writers do. (During the interview, he name-checked a number of prominent U.S. journalists with whom he says he has worked in the past, from publications including BuzzFeed and the New York Times). He has written and co-written several controversial books, including “Impeachable offenses: the case for removing Barack Obama from office.”

He insisted that he doesn’t “filter the facts” through a partisan lens, while acknowledging that “If somebody is looking at us from the outside, I can see why they believe Breitbart Jerusalem is more on the nationalist side.”

In fact, that’s the point of the bureau. And Breitbart officials say that Bannon’s sponsorship of a staunchly pro-Israel outlet underscores his support of the Jewish people.

“Steve Bannon made sure that happened, so finally Israeli affairs, Middle Eastern affairs, would be covered from an unabashedly Zionist, pro-Israel perspective,” Joel Pollak, senior-editor-at large at Breitbart News, said in November. “That’s the depth of Steve’s empathy for the Jewish people.”

‘One of the greatest friends Israel has’?

Still, many in the Jewish community remain deeply uncomfortable with Bannon. That’s due in large part to his description of Breitbart as the “platform of the alt-right.” It doesn’t help that his ex-wife, in divorce proceedings, also once accused him of making anti-Semitic remarks, which he denies.

The Anti-Defamation League “strongly” opposed Bannon’s appointment by Trump, calling him “a man who presided over the premier website of the alt-right, a loose-knit group of white nationalists and unabashed anti-Semites and racists.” The group also conceded, “We are not aware of any anti-Semitic statements made by Bannon himself,” and several former employees who are Jewish have repeatedly come to his defense.

Yet opening a bureau in Israel—something many news outlets have done, pro-Israel or not—does little to assuage those who have concerns about Bannon.

“Regardless of how many employees Breitbart Jerusalem has, the fact that Steve Bannon, as CEO of Breitbart, gave a platform to the alt-right, a home for white supremacists who peddle in anti-Semitism and other forms of hatred is deeply concerning and dangerous to our community,” said Aaron Keyak, co-founder of firm Bluelight Strategies, which advises leading Jewish organizations and Democratic causes.

But Klein—who in person is generally mild-mannered, even gracious— has taken it upon himself to vociferously combat criticism of Bannon and of Trump within the Jewish community, vouching for them through interviews in Israel and with conservative media.

“I was so frustrated and even hurt, in a way, that somebody so close to me, like Steve, who I know to be the exact opposite of anti-Semitic, who empowered me, that he would be smeared in this way,” Klein said.

He recalled once receiving a late-night message from Bannon, who had learned of a suspected connection between terrorism and some students at the Palestinian Al-Quds University, which partners with Bard College in New York.

“He wanted me to get it out now,” Klein said. “He’s like, ‘you’ve got to get this out, get it out.’ He emailed me repeatedly to expose that one link. He was like, ‘get on it, get on it.’ It was 1 o’clock in the morning, I do go to bed really late but I didn’t want to start, like, a whole investigation at 1 o’clock in the morning. But I did. We got it out.”

To Klein, that urgency suggested genuine concern about exposing foes of Israel. Asked why Bannon is passionate about the issue, he replied that while he doesn’t speak for Bannon, “anti-Semitism, global anti-Semitism and anti-Westernism sometimes really go hand in hand. The Jews here in the Middle East, Israel, [are] on the front lines of radical Islamic terror... Also, why would somebody who has a moral compass not care about anti-Semitism?”

Breitbart Jerusalem extensively covers anti-Semitic attacks in the U.S. and around the world. Asked about the criticisms Trump faced during the campaign and early on in his administration about being slow to condemn such developments before later speaking out more forcefully, Klein was dismissive.

“The inference here is…because he didn’t condemn it, maybe, therefore, there’s something going on,” Klein said (and several days after the interview, it was revealed that an Israeli-American was suspected of being behind many bomb threats targeting Jewish Community Centers. Breitbart and Breitbart Jerusalem ran a piece from Pollak headlined, “ADL owes Trump supporters an apology.”). “I don’t see that at all,” Klein continued, “when he’s one of the greatest friends Israel has.”

Despite his praise for Bannon and Trump, Klein insists that Breitbart Jerusalem will call out the Trump administration should it abandon core promises—for example, failing to move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, or if the administration offers “one-sided condemnations” of Israel.

“I don’t believe we’re going to be shy,” said Klein, who is also a senior investigative reporter with Breitbart. “Steve Bannon… he asked us to hold the Trump administration accountable publicly. That’s what I believe the role of media should be, not to create new scandals, not to serve as the ‘opposition party,’ if you will. It’s to report accurately, also to hold elected officials accountable. I believe you’re going to see Breitbart do that, certainly Breitbart Jerusalem as well.”

Several days later, Klein’s website ran a news story headlined: “Trump administration boycotts anti-Israel discussion at UN Human Rights Council.”

Above it was banner that paid homage to Trump’s campaign slogan.

“Great again!” it proclaimed.

Katie Glueck: 202-383-6078, @katieglueck

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