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Judging from the weekend reports on the investigation against Pentagon man Larry Franklin, who is suspected of passing classified material to Israel via AIPAC people, it appears talk of a "mole" in the administration and comparisons to the Pollard affair are highly exaggerated.

But regardless of the findings, the Franklin affair will cause serious damage to Israel's image and obstruct its working relations with the administration.

The timing, in the runup to presidential elections and on the eve of the Republican Party convention, exacerbates the problem.

The Franklin affair has all the ingredients of a conspiracy theory, implying that Israel manipulated the Bush administration to further its own interests and dragged America into a superfluous war on Iraq through a group of "neo-conservative" Jews at the top of the Pentagon, and with the power of enchantment AIPAC casts over Capitol Hill.

Those who want to bash Israel will use Franklin's investigation and his ties to Israel and its supporters as proof of their arguments. On the practical level, there is no doubt that the affair will deter American officials, who will think twice before talking to Israeli colleagues for fear of getting entangled in inquiries and surveillance.

AIPAC, which always takes pains to portray itself as an American organization that works for American interests and does not take instructions from Jerusalem, might suffer the hardest blow. The organization's image will be tarnished and administration officials will wary of returning calls from its representatives.

Israeli officials say that the affair will not cloud the relations with the U.S. in the long term, especially if the suspicions are groundless. But it reveals once again that under the friendship and closeness between Jerusalem and Washington, there are undercurrents of suspicion that have not healed since the Pollard affair in the '80s.

According to the Israeli version, Franklin's working relations with Israeli diplomats did not exceed the acceptable ties with many other officials in the administration and in other states. He did not play a covert role and the meetings with him were in the sphere of practical diplomacy and exchanging information and evaluations.

The Franklin case is not the first to arouse suspicions of excessive cooperation with Israel in Washington. Three years ago a similar suspicion was raised of a desk clerk in the State Department who had working relations with Israeli representatives. Someone suspected the friendship was too close and the man was suspended, interrogated, and suffered greatly before the case was closed. Since then he became wary and stopped talking with Israeli contacts - they too kept their distance.

Israel's representatives in Washington get quite a few briefings on formulating policy regarding the Middle East in talks with their contact people in the administration. Israeli officials who meet foreign diplomats or journalists also give them material originating in classified documents and inside consultations and nobody suspects them of espionage.

Israeli sources assume Franklin fell victim to power struggles in the Pentagon, between the professional level and the political appointments of the "neocons." The probe against him and its leaking were intended to weaken the political group, whose image was already tainted by the entanglement in Iraq.

The inquiry is being conducted only in the United States at present, and Israel has not been asked for comment, information, or testimonies.

Sources in the bureaus of the prime minister and defense and foreign ministers said that after the publication they conducted an extensive internal examination, which completely refuted any espionage allegations.

"Israel is not aware of having received information from this man," a Jerusalem source said. "Nobody used him, people hardly knew him, and we don't understand this fantasy," another source said. "Since the Pollard affair, no intelligence man would dare think of gathering information in the U.S."

However, even if the Franklin affair comes to nothing, Israel had better examine itself carefully. More caution will need to be exercised in contacts with American officials, who might be susceptible to accusations of having excessive affinity with Israel.