New era ahead
Despite appearances, the tide is not in favour of Israel or its fervent lobby, writes Ayman El-Amir*
Ask any Arab politician, diplomat, foreign policy guru, media practitioner, political activist or Arab-American of any vocation about the secret of Israel's iron grip hold on the formulation and direction of US foreign policy, and the answer comes directly: it's the Zionist lobby. Hundreds of articles, books and debates have been published about the mythical powers of this lobby, how it can make or break careers in the US Congress, the junkets it organises for high-profile or rising journalists, business leaders and promising young political apprentices to Israel. Its intimidating influence on senators and congressmen, media magnates, academia, the intelligence community, its fund-raising activities and, above all, its deep and public infiltration of the Pentagon -- the dwelling of the Olympians who run the American war machine -- are all a matter of record. What this lobby has done over the past 40 years to dovetail Israeli interests into US foreign policy, and sometimes make them superior to US concerns, is stupendous. One of its many successes has been the neutralisation of any Arab counter-lobby. And the Arabs are watching helplessly.
In introducing a public debate about the issue last year, Hagit Brorer, a professor of linguistics at the University of Southern California, summed it up as follows: "Israel is the largest recipient of US foreign aid, to the tune of more than $3 billion a year, plus miscellaneous additions like surplus weaponry, debt waivers and other perks. Israel is the only country that receives its entire aid package in the beginning of the fiscal year, allowing it to accrue interest during the year. It is the only country that is allowed to spend up to 25 per cent of its aid outside of the United States, placing such expenditures outside US control. Apart from financial support, the United States has offered unwavering support for the Israeli occupation of Palestine and for the ongoing oppression of the Palestinians, and has systematically supported Israel's refusal to make any effective peace negotiations or peace agreements. It has vetoed countless UN resolutions seeking to bring Israel into compliance with international law. It has allowed Israel to develop nuclear weapons and not to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and most recently it strongly supported Israel's attack on Lebanon in July of 2006. Support for Israel cuts across party lines and is extremely strong in Congress where criticism of Israel is rarely, if ever, heard. It also characterises almost all American administrations from Johnson onwards; with George W Bush being possibly the most pro-Israel president ever."
Whether this overwhelming influence is the work of the omnipotent America-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), with its $47 million budget and 100,000 supporting volunteers, or the presidents of the 52 Major American Jewish Organisations and their following or the Zionist activists on all levels of American society is an academic issue that has been discussed endlessly. What has not been adequately understood is whether the Arabs with all the means available to them can even begin to scratch the surface of the lobby game that has been so mastered by pro-Israel activists in the US. The Arabs believe that government-to-government policy discussions are sufficient to guarantee favourable consideration of individual Arab interests. To the US, this boils down to mobilising Arab governments in the fight against the common threat of terrorism, against fundamentalist opposition to oppressive Arab regimes, building a coalition against Iran that threatens to undercut US hegemony, and to secure the uninterrupted flow of oil. To the Arabs, it is a succession of disappointments and disregard of their common needs.
Even if we assume that the Arabs are keen on emulating the Zionist lobby, they have to face the major question of what they have in common with the American value system. What do the Arabs share with mainstream American society beyond the export of oil, the import of US goods and the protection of self- perpetuating, atrophied regimes in the region?
This issue has been brought into sharp focus by the recent revelation of the case of the Saudi rape victim, code-named Al-Qatif, from the Eastern province of the kingdom. She was initially sentenced to 90 lashes that were later increased to 200 in addition to a jail sentence because she was in the company of a non- relative when six men attacked and raped her. Surely the rapists were sentenced to jail too, but the rape victim's sentence was a unique case of a justice system that adds insult to injury. Her sentence was made more severe because her defence lawyer brought the case to the attention of the media, for which he was stripped of his licence to practice.
So what do Arab governments or peoples have in common with the US that policymakers can take seriously as influential in formulating domestic or foreign policy?
In the US, the Arabs are not a solid voting bloc that politicians running for public office weigh carefully in drafting their policy agenda. They are not a significant source of campaign funding; on the contrary, their contributions could be a source of embarrassment for candidates who want to court the Jewish vote, and they all do. Looking at the Arabs on their own turf from a distance could hardly evoke a sense of joy, admiration or partnership for the average American, from the perspective of his or her value system. What shared values can be found in the area of human rights, the rule of law and equality before it, free elections of government and the free will to change it, or respect for the rights of women and their promotion? Israel, on the other hand, is perceived as the only democracy in the region, not because it is really so, but because there are no other democratic systems in the region to match. Israel's racist policies towards the Palestinians, its brutal occupation and the threat of its nuclear arsenal, appear matters of little concern. In short, to the average American there is nothing in the Arab value system that he or she can identify with, unlike the pro-Western Israeli model. Besides, the Arabs have placed all their assets in the hands of the US, including their natural resources, the value of their strategic location and the defence of their wealth and territories. They have thus lost any measure of leverage, which is the name of the game.
Arab-Americans have not yet recovered from the aftershocks of the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001, which put them on the defensive. They have been placed under surveillance, viewed with suspicion, harassed and ethnically profiled. They had to keep a low profile, which weakened their Middle East interest group position, both individually and collectively.
From the viewpoint of vital interests, the Arabs should have the strongest influence on US foreign policy, given its concern that oil flows freely to American shores. What has happened is the opposite. Israel became the trusted guardian of US interests in the region after it defeated Egypt, Syria and Jordan in the 1967 War. Because of the inherent weaknesses of Arab regimes and the lack of shared values based on common democratic ideals, oil suppliers became political supplicants. That turned the potential US-Arab partnership paradigm upside down and gave Israel the upper hand. As the Arabs regressed, Israel and its growing influential lobby developed a mutually reinforcing partnership to promote Israeli interests in every aspect of US foreign policy.
In spite of present difficulties, a potentially effective Arab special interest group in the US is not impossible. However, it has to be home grown and based on grassroots action. It cannot misrepresent dictatorship as democracy, rigged elections as free and fair, police state tactics as maintaining the rule of law, or the abuse of women as respected traditional values.
Meanwhile, Israel and its powerful lobby in Washington are coming under increasing scrutiny, not so much because of the daily atrocities Israel is committing against the Palestinians but because of the role pro- Israel senior US defence policy officials played in pushing the US into the Iraq quagmire. The Israeli lobby has overplayed its hand for decades, free from any credible Arab challenge. While the Arabs talked about the righteousness of their cause, the Jewish lobby was tirelessly working on fostering the Judeo-Christian tradition that spawned the fundamentalist Evangelical movement and the neo-cons.
This, however, is not the end of the story. Conventional wisdom adopted by successive US administrations and US Congress about the value of Israel's strategic value in safeguarding US interests in the region is increasingly under doubt by an American public whose trust in both the administration and Congress is declining. We are back to the days when, in the 1950s, the Shian Kai-Check lobby of Nationalist China, now Taiwan, was the most effective and powerful lobby in Washington. For more than a decade, this lobby convinced all US institutions that Nationalist China was the best defence mechanism the US had in Asia against the spread of communism. Times do change and the Arabs should be ready for a new era, even when Israel seems too tough a nut to crack.
* The writer is a former correspondent for Al-Ahram in Washington, DC. He also served as director of UN Radio and Television in New York.