Steve Bannon’s man in the Middle East – McClatchy Washington Bureau
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: âBreitbart Jerusalem.â
âBreitbart is the most pro-Israel site in the United States of America,â Bannon told The Wall Street Journal. âI have Breitbart Jerusalem, which I have Aaron Klein run with about 10 reporters there.â
Itâs 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. Itâs an accusation rooted in Bannonâs praise for the so-called âalt-right,â a movement associated with white supremacists and neo-Nazis.
And Klein, Bannonâs choice to lead Breitbartâs Middle East outpost, is playing his part, emerging as a vocal validator for Bannon while building the controversial outletâs 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 Uziâfor the gun.
âWe have major influence right now politically,â said Klein, who also makes the 45-mile trek to Jerusalem multiple times a week to report.
âOur platform skyrocketed since the election. It increased in the last year, I would say. Around the time of the campaign,â he said. âWith the rise of Trump and the rise of Breitbart.â
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 paperâa dust-up that received New York Times coverage.
He was also captivated by international newsâin particular, rising Islamic extremismâand 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 didnât find out about the adventure until later, and âshe was definitely not at all happy about it,â 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, âMy weekend with the enemy.â It published before the terrorist attacks of September 2001, and Klein considers it an exposÃ© on extremist thought.
âThey donât disguise their ideology,â 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 âthe whole talking with terrorists thingâ 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, âradical Islamic terrorism.â
âWeâre totally on the same page as far as our vision for the Middle East, the war on terror,â he said.
Bannon ultimately brought him on board a year and a half ago after courting him over emails and phone calls.
âSteve Bannon was very happy when he was able to hire him,â said one Bannon associate who spoke with Bannon at the time of Kleinâs hiring. ââ¦Even though he worked at WND, he wasnât considered a lunatic.â
Bannon told Klein that Breitbart would âgrow exponentially,â and that âit gets a lot more mainstream exposure,â 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 Kleinâs 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 âSome of Judaismâs holiest sites are located in the West Bank and eastern Jerusalemââbut often donât 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 âfake newsâ 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 didnât know Breitbart even had a bureau in Israel.
âI canât remember hearing an Israeli ask me if Iâd read a Breitbart piece,â added Daniel Shapiro, former U.S. ambassador to Israel during President Barack Obamaâs 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 Yaâalon.
Klein has big hopes for increasing Breitbart Jerusalemâs video focus, seeing a âgreat opportunity for really hot video here in the Middle East,â 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 â âIt has a vacation resort feel even though Iâm here in the heart of the larger Middle East,â 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, Israelâs 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 âa Palestinian entity/state on some levelâ 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 doesnât 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 âImpeachable offenses: the case for removing Barack Obama from office.â
He insisted that he doesnât âfilter the factsâ through a partisan lens, while acknowledging that âIf somebody is looking at us from the outside, I can see why they believe Breitbart Jerusalem is more on the nationalist side.â
In fact, thatâs the point of the bureau. And Breitbart officials say that Bannonâs sponsorship of a staunchly pro-Israel outlet underscores his support of the Jewish people.
âSteve Bannon made sure that happened, so finally Israeli affairs, Middle Eastern affairs, would be covered from an unabashedly Zionist, pro-Israel perspective,â Joel Pollak, senior-editor-at large at Breitbart News, said in November. âThatâs the depth of Steveâs empathy for the Jewish people.â
âOne of the greatest friends Israel hasâ?
Still, many in the Jewish community remain deeply uncomfortable with Bannon. Thatâs due in large part to his description of Breitbart as the âplatform of the alt-right.â It doesnât help that his ex-wife, in divorce proceedings, also once accused him of making anti-Semitic remarks, which he denies.
The Anti-Defamation League âstronglyâ opposed Bannonâs appointment by Trump, calling him âa man who presided over the premier website of the alt-right, a loose-knit group of white nationalists and unabashed anti-Semites and racists.â The group also conceded, âWe are not aware of any anti-Semitic statements made by Bannon himself,â and several former employees who are Jewish have repeatedly come to his defense.
Yet opening a bureau in Israelâsomething many news outlets have done, pro-Israel or notâdoes little to assuage those who have concerns about Bannon.
âRegardless 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,â said Aaron Keyak, co-founder of firm Bluelight Strategies, which advises leading Jewish organizations and Democratic causes.
But Kleinâwho in person is generally mild-mannered, even graciousâ 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.
âI 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,â 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.
âHe wanted me to get it out now,â Klein said. âHeâs like, âyouâve got to get this out, get it out.â He emailed me repeatedly to expose that one link. He was like, âget on it, get on it.â It was 1 oâclock in the morning, I do go to bed really late but I didnât want to start, like, a whole investigation at 1 oâclock in the morning. But I did. We got it out.â
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 doesnât speak for Bannon, âanti-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?â
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.
âThe inference here isâ¦because he didnât condemn it, maybe, therefore, thereâs something going on,â 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, âADL owes Trump supporters an apology.â). âI donât see that at all,â Klein continued, âwhen heâs one of the greatest friends Israel has.â
Despite his praise for Bannon and Trump, Klein insists that Breitbart Jerusalem will call out the Trump administration should it abandon core promisesâfor example, failing to move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, or if the administration offers âone-sided condemnationsâ of Israel.
âI donât believe weâre going to be shy,â said Klein, who is also a senior investigative reporter with Breitbart. âSteve Bannonâ¦ he asked us to hold the Trump administration accountable publicly. Thatâs what I believe the role of media should be, not to create new scandals, not to serve as the âopposition party,â if you will. Itâs to report accurately, also to hold elected officials accountable. I believe youâre going to see Breitbart do that, certainly Breitbart Jerusalem as well.â
Several days later, Kleinâs website ran a news story headlined: âTrump administration boycotts anti-Israel discussion at UN Human Rights Council.â
Above it was banner that paid homage to Trumpâs campaign slogan.
âGreat again!â it proclaimed.