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Hussein Ibish

In search of the invisible Arab lobby

This week HarperCollins released a new book by Mitchell Bard called The Arab Lobby: The Invisible Alliance that Undermines America’s Interests in the Middle East, an obvious and ham-handed effort to counter the influential 2007 book The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy by John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt.
 
Mearsheimer and Walt’s book was flawed in some significant ways. It wrongly identified pro-Israel groups as among the most important forces pushing the United States to invade Iraq in 2003 and ignored divisions within Jewish pro-Israel circles, especially the “pro-peace” camp represented by Americans for Peace Now and J Street.
 
However, the essential phenomenon they were describing is unassailably and obviously real: there is an extremely influential, although in many ways diverse, set of actors and organizations supporting Israeli interests in the United States. No one with a modicum of honesty and a passing familiarity with Washington, or with US policy for that matter, could deny this.
 
Indeed, the special relationship between the United States and Israel, based on an American commitment to Israel’s security, is not a matter of serious political debate or contest in the US and is essentially settled. Within that framework, there is obviously space for a wide range of approaches and attitudes, but the fundamental commitment of the United States to Israel and its most basic interests is, for the foreseeable future, beyond serious challenge.
 
Bard’s book, in contrast, is built on an absolute chimera: the notion that there is an “invisible” and powerful “Arab lobby” that undermines both American and Israeli interests in Washington. When I first looked at it, I had to wonder whether it was intended as a satire or a work of imaginative fiction. It turns out to be a gigantic stockpot in which anything and everything remotely connected to Arabs, Arab interests, criticism of Israel, or even criticism of US foreign policy in the region, is very carelessly tossed and set to bubble away in the hope of producing some sort of cohesion. It never happens.
 
The Arab Lobby is not only profoundly paranoid and silly, it’s also unbelievably sloppy. Bard includes a large amount of information, some accurate, some irrelevant, some inaccurate, and some even fanciful. An example of this dreadful carelessness is his identification of me as “ADC’s communications director” in the present tense, even though I have not worked at the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee since 2004. Sadly, the book is littered with this kind of elementary error and bears all the hallmarks of a cut-and-paste job without any real fact checking or analysis.
 
Worse, The Arab Lobby reflects the author’s zero-sum mentality on Israeli-Arab relations, and on those involving Jewish-Americans and Arab-Americans. Bard simply divides reality into two sets of binary categories: pro-Jewish and Israel versus pro-Arab and Palestinian. This may have been an accurate reflection of political realities several decades ago, but at present it is simply wrong. Since the United States, Israel and the Palestinians all need the same thing to secure their fundamental national interests – a negotiated peace agreement that ends the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and the Israeli occupation – there is in fact no clear binary of interests. To the contrary, the mutuality of interest in peace is becoming ever more apparent.
 
Bard’s paranoid attitudes are summed up in his symptomatic misrepresentation of the American Task Force on Palestine, at which I have been a senior fellow for the past five years. He acknowledges ATFP’s groundbreaking principled, pragmatic and constructive positions, but couches them in language that leaves readers in no doubt that it is all a ruse thinly disguising a concealed extremism. In Bard’s zero-sum world, it would have to be, wouldn’t it?
 
Time and again, the reader is torn between the impression that Bard is trying to create a large, invisible, elitist, and secret anti-Israel and anti-American “lobby,” and his frequent admissions that organized Arab groups in the United States – and even lobbyists representing the only Arab state with influence in Washington, Saudi Arabia – have had very limited impact on US policy and almost none at all on Congress.
 
In other words, the book oscillates very unsteadily between fantasy and reality. Bard finds himself trapped between an uncontrollable urge to boast about the effectiveness of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, or AIPAC (though he has the unmitigated chutzpah to describe the pro-Israel lobby as “mythical”), while also presenting it as deeply threatened by this secret pro-Arab alliance. Bard then depicts the latter as enormously influential (though what policies it has influenced he is somewhat at a loss to identify), and in the same breath contemptuously dismisses organized Arab and Muslim-American efforts as utterly ineffectual.
 
For all of its evident flaws, Mearsheimer and Walt’s book was highly influential because it was a rare effort by credible scholars to analyze a reality that everyone knows but avoids talking about. Inevitably, it generated considerable anger. Bard’s book, on the other hand, is unlikely to provoke anything other than mirth, not least among those of us supposedly involved in this “many-headed hydra” he is “exposing.”

Hussein Ibish is a senior fellow at the American Task Force on Palestine and blogs at www.ibishblog.com

  • vildechaye

    Dear Mr. Ibish: The problem with Mearsheimer/Walt's Israel lobby thesis is not simply that it stated that Jewish individuals within the Bush administration led the U.S. into war with Iraq in 2003; it is that it implies that there is a vast Jewish/Zionist cabal making Israeli interests synonymous with American interests: The Israeli tail wagging the U.S. dog, if you will. To Jews, that sounds an awful lot like the old conspiracy theory from the Protocols of the Elders of Zion; blaming Jews for capitalism and communism; controlling the media and the banks, having politicians in their pockets, and so on. That is why there is so much anger at Mearsheimer/Walt. They implied there is a "special relationship" only because a 5th column of Jews in the U.S. really work for Israel, and that the special relationship works against U.S. interests. Incidentally, I have no problem with your dissection of Bard's book. It sounds simply awful.

    September 7, 2010

  • Hussein Ibish

    I'm fully aware that J Street wasn't founded until after 2007. But the trend I am describing, the camp I am referring to, was very much real before that time. You need to read more carefully.

    September 5, 2010

  • Nocturnicus

    Americans and israelis often reverse roles.

    September 2, 2010

  • Ethan Stein

    Mr. Ibish, While I wish J Street would have been around in 2003, it was not created until 2008, after the Israeli Lobby book was published. You can't really pick on this book messing up tenses when you do not have your facts straight either.

    September 1, 2010

  • Word

    The Arab lobby in where you will find the Arab secretary, ahead of the Arab cubicles, on your way to meet the Arab executives in the Arab conference room.

    September 1, 2010

  • Michael Dar

    One of the more "visible" Arab lobbies in the US has a name "CAIR". What is not so visible is for example the hidden part of this organization's real subversive activities and goals. There are many more of those albeit less known Islamic militantic organizations. American "oil people", financiers and politicians have been on Saoudi's pay-roll for decades. Saoudis have poured many billions of $ in America's higher education and Universities to precisely "influence" America's future foreign pro-Arab policy as well as aiming at the progressive Islamisation of America. Dismissing the importance and/or strenght of the Arab lobby is a futile smoke-screen, reality and facts proves otherwise.

    September 1, 2010