Jewish Political Studies Review 23:1-2 (Spring 2011)
In January 2011, a group of distinguished ex-legislators and diplomats sent a letter to President Obama advocating a new American policy in the Middle East. In effect, they called on Obama to impose a solution on the Israelis and the Palestinians. The writers objected to “Israel’s occupation, the relentless enlargement of its settlements, its dispossession of the Palestinian people in the West Bank and in East Jerusalem, and the humanitarian disaster caused by its blockade of Gaza that are the target of international anger and condemnation.” Who are these hoary Washington fixtures and what were their motives?
The answer can be found in The Arab Lobby, Dr. Mitchell Bard’s in-depth examination of the powerful anti-Israeli pressure group that has been pushing its policies in Washington for more than sixty-five years, often from within the State Department itself. The book explains the backgrounds and motives of these lobbyists, many of whom were former diplomats, oil company executives, high-priced lawyers, and public relations spinmeisters.
Bard points to a change in the standing of Arab states in Washington in 1978, when President Jimmy Carter undermined Israel’s strategic military advantage by offering Saudi Arabia F-15 fighter bombers. “The Arabs invest[ed] in foreign agents,” Bard notes. “Twenty-five agents [were] lobbing on the Saudis’ behalf for the F-15 sale.”
As a senior staffer for AIPAC working against the sale at the time, this author finds Bard’s analysis particularly accurate. He adds: “the [pro-] Israel lobby…faced a formidable enemy, national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, [who] was seen as the architect of the arms package.” Brzezinski, thirty-three years later, was one of the signers of the January 2011 letter to Obama. Such are the personal agendas of Washington’s “Elders of Anti-Zion.”
After 9/11, Saudi Arabia had reached rock bottom in American public opinion. Contrary to the popular song, however, money can buy you love. Bard reports on the full-court press conducted by the Saudis today with their many high-paid Washington foreign agents and PR firms, mega-grants to American universities and Middle East studies centers, and sponsorship of Wahabi Islamic instruction and indoctrination in American mosques, private schools, and even prisons.
He aptly describes the traditional weakness of the Arab American component of the Arab lobby. Their members were often at odds over the same issues that divide the Arab world – Shiite vs. Sunni, Muslim vs. Christian, Lebanon vs. Syria, and so on. The National Association of Arab Americans and the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee were too often seen as “against” Israel, particularly U.S. aid for it, and not “for” their Arab homelands. Washington as a whole, and Congress in particular, like to support causes, not oppose them.
Yet, as Bard points out, the Arab American organizations have been displaying a new sophistication in their presentations, branding, and messages. Bard does not, however, discuss the role played by Lebanese American activist James Zogby, founder and president of the Arab American Institute. Zogby also founded the Palestine Human Rights Campaign in Washington in the 1970s, but the organization reportedly began to attract U.S. Justice Department attention for its ties to Libya’s foreign agent in Washington, Zogby’s mentor Richard Shadyac, and to the PLO office in the capital. Zogby moved to Chicago for a few years, possibly until investigations cooled off. There he met Jesse Jackson and other political activists; Zogby recruited among the Arab American community to support Jackson and became very active in the National Democratic Committee.
Zogby returned to Washington and founded the Arab American Institute (AII) in 1985. Today he serves as its president and heads the organization National Arab Americans for Obama. He has allied the AAI with the purportedly “pro-Israeli” J Street on numerous occasions, leading senior White House official Tina Tchen, a longtime Obama associate from Chicago and head of the White House Office of Public Engagement, to encourage joint J Street-AII programs and strategies. In October 2009, she addressed a joint meeting of the AAI and J Street, telling Zogby and J Street head Jeremy Ben-Ami that “You are quite representative of what we want to accomplish” in promoting Obama’s Middle East policies.
The AAI also shows up in a Justice Department memo receiving $300,000 from Saudi prince Alwaleed bin Talal in the critical year following 9/11. Zogby’s organization was also implicated in the fraudulent formation of a group called the “Alliance of Peace and Justice,” which was running radio, TV, and print ads attacking Israeli settlements and promoting the Saudi peace initiative in April 2002. It turns out that the alliance was a front organization created by the Saudis’ foreign-agent PR firm, Qorvis, at a cost of $679,000. Qorvis’s CEO admitted to reporters that financial backers of the alliance included the AAI, the U.S.-Saudi Business Council, and the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (another Zogby-created organization). In December 2004, the FBI raided Qorvis to investigate foreign-agent violations. A grand jury was convened, but no details were ever made public.
Richard Abdoo, a member of AAI’s board of governors, also serves on J Street PAC’s finance committee and contributes tens of thousands of dollars to the PAC.
The newest component of the contemporary Arab lobby, not discussed by Bard, is its readiness to ally with radical Jewish organizations such as Jewish Voice for Peace, a group that supports boycott, divestment, and sanctions against Israel. Some groups cooperate with J Street so as to free themselves of anti-Israeli stigmas, while they work together to further the Palestinian cause or try to block sanctions against Iran.
The Arab Lobby presents a detailed and worrisome portrayal of this lobby’s corruption of education about the Middle East at college campuses and think tanks, and of general information provided to libraries for children. It is, then, somewhat contradictory for Bard to minimize the anti-Semitic incidents on campus, explaining that they “have gone on for decades and had little or no impact, but are frequently blown up into major incidents.” The incidents are certainly troublesome and intimidating to many students at those campuses. Feeling under threat, some Jewish groups on campus have opted to conduct “fun cultural events” such as falafel parties rather than inviting serious pro-Israeli speakers who are prepared to challenge the politically correct slumber some campus organizations prefer. The intimidation and unpreparedness of Jewish students will encourage further anti-Israeli activity on campus.
Bard has undertaken two daunting tasks with this book. The first is to provide a new chapter in the scholarly and historical work on the subject for which I. L. Kenen, founder of AIPAC and author of Israel’s Defense Lines, and Steven Emerson, author of The American House of Saud, have laid the basis. The second is to confront the borderline anti-Semitic thesis of Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer in The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy, where they contend that an “omnipotent Israel lobby” controls U.S. policy. Bard responds by demonstrating that “U.S. policy is heavily influenced by an equally potent – yet much less visible – Arab lobby that is driven by ideology, oil, and arms to support Middle Eastern regimes.”
The author deserves credit for meticulous and fact-filled footnotes. There is one, however, that requires correction. In the conclusion, fn. 22 states that the deathly-ill Lockerbie bomber who was set free on a humanitarian basis “died shortly after returning to Libya.” In fact, Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, released in August 2009 and given only three months to live by doctors, is still alive and free in Libya.
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 “A Letter to President Obama,” New York Review of Books, 24 January 2011.
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LENNY BEN-DAVID served as deputy chief of mission at the Israeli embassy in Washington; before that he worked for ten years at AIPAC’s Washington office. He moved to Israel in 1982 when he opened AIPAC’s office in Jerusalem, which he directed for fifteen years.