Q & A / A conversation with Mitchell Bard
Author of a new volume that argues that the Israel lobby in Washington doesn’t have much up on the powerful Arab lobby, even if the latter is less well-known.
With all the talk of recent years about the power of the “Israel lobby,” which according to some commentators wields disproportionate power in Washington, to the detriment of American national interests, little attention has focused on the power brokers who operate on behalf of the Arab states, specifically the Palestinian cause. Mitchell Bard aims to rectify the situation with his new book, “The Arab Lobby: The Invisible Alliance that Undermines American Interests in the Middle East” (Harper Books, 412 pages, $28), which traces the history of pro-Arab groups − and there have been many − that have worked to influence public opinion and political policy in the U.S. since before the founding of Israel. Just as the states of the Arab world have always been disparate and even at odds with each other, there has never been a coalition of Arab organizations in Washington speaking with a unified voice. Rather, Bard, himself a former editor of an AIPAC newsletter, identifies two principal trends within what he calls the Arab lobby: groups working on behalf of Saudi interests, and those trying to advance the Palestinian cause among Americans. The former, according to Bard, are bad for America because Saudi Arabia is ruled by an undemocratic, intolerant regime that mainly exists to preserve its own power. The Palestinian lobby, he says, have largely been as much anti-Israel as they have been pro-Palestinian, which means they have elected not to play a constructive role in seeking an equitable two-state solution to the conflict. Bard also looks at the role that a variety of different church groups in the U.S. have played in undermining the pro-Israel cause − some of them out of classic Christian anti-Semitism, others because of an identification with liberation theology. And he devotes considerable space to the influence of different branches of the lobby on American university campuses, including those with Middle East institutes involved in developing curricula about the region and about Islam for use in primary and secondary schools. Bard, has a Ph.D. in political science from UCLA (his doctoral dissertation was on the topic of domestic influence on U.S. policy in the Middle East), and is the author of some dozen earlier books, several of them primers on the Middle East and on the Arab-Israeli conflict, and most recently, “48 Hours of Kristallnacht: Night of Destruction/Dawn of the Holocaust.” Haaretz spoke with Bard by phone from Washington, D.C.
Q What are the most critical points of your book that readers need to be aware of today?
A First of all, contrary to the misperception that has been created, especially in recent years, there is not an all-powerful Israeli lobby that controls U.S. Middle East policy. At the same time, it’s vital for both the public and for decision makers to understand that there is an Arab lobby that has existed at least as long, if not longer, than the Israel lobby. It’s important to know how it operates and when it is able to use influence to work for goals that are sometimes contrary to U.S. values and interests.
Q On the one hand, you describe a coalition of organizations with vast financial resources at their disposal, and many sympathetic U.S. government employees happy to do their bidding; and on the other, you portray a bumbling lobby with little public support and a poor record of achieving its policy goals. How do you reconcile these two images?
A I would say it differently. I try to be quite balanced and honest in analyzing the situation. I don’t say that the Arab lobby is all-powerful. Its members have influence over some things at some times. That’s the same thing I said about the Israel lobby when I wrote my book about that. I make a distinction between two central parts of the lobby. There is an oil-driven Saudi-led lobby, which is very competent and very influential, I believe, and a second part, which is the domestic side, focused on the Palestinian issue. The second is not bumbling, but it is much less successful because of tangible aspects of these interest groups’ behavior. There also happen to be many fewer Muslim and Arab Americans than there are Jewish Americans, and many more non-Jewish supporters of Israel’s position than non-Arabs who support the Palestinians. So, they are at a disadvantage, in terms of numbers. Their point of view is not popular, and there is little incentive for politicians at the congressional level to support their positions. There’s no upside for them. For those reasons, the domestic, pro-Palestinian-focused part has less influence than the other part.
The powerful part of the Arab lobby isn’t so concerned about the Palestinian issue, they’re concerned about the welfare of the Saudis. And fights between the Israel lobby and the Saudi lobby are rare − there hasn’t been one since the 1981 arms sales fight. As for the domestic Arab lobby, even they are less pro-Palestinian than they are anti-Israel. Almost everything is anti-Israel. For example, the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee’s resolutions mostly target Israel and ignore discrimination against Arabs by anyone other than Israel or the United States. They don’t support independence for Lebanon. They rarely criticize terrorism. And so they have very little credibility with Congress. It shouldn’t be surprising if they are also unsuccessful.
Q Is there such a thing as a moderate Arab state?
A Egyptians and Jordanians, in terms of their attitudes toward the U.S. and toward Israel, with which they have peace treaties, yes. In public, they express moderate views.
Q And Saudi Arabia?
A I find ridiculous those who call the Saudis moderate. They are opposed to most of our values. They have discriminated against Americans living and working in Saudi Arabia. They have undermined our efforts to make peace in the Middle East. They support terrorism that directly threatens us. The Saudis made it clear that they would never sign a peace treaty with Israel. Theirs is one of the most intolerant societies in the world. They have funded and continue to fund mosques and schools around the world that teach extreme views of Islam.
Q At the same time, they have taken the lead with the Arab peace initiative, which envisions a comprehensive peace between the Arab world and Israel. Isn’t that an expression of moderation?
A I believe the Saudi peace initiative was created as a diversionary tactic, at the time when Saudi Arabia was being savaged in the U.S., after 9/11. Just a few months later, suddenly [King] Abdullah comes out with the idea of promoting peace. He completely changed the dialogue for a moment, from Saudi Arabia the terrorist state to Saudi Arabia the peacemaker. But it was a sham: They never made any effort to negotiate with the Israelis. Obama this past year asked them to make the peace initiative more palatable; they said, we won’t change a word, and our king will never go to Jerusalem, in the manner of Anwar Sadat.
When you read the history of the Saudis, they are among the most anti-Semitic of nations. They are very smart. Not bumbling. One mistake of Americans is in not appreciating how smart they are. They know how to survive. Go back to the Fahd Plan [for Arab-Israeli peace, from 1981]: They announced this plan at the time they were trying to get AWACS planes from the Reagan administration. The minute they got the planes, they turned around and called for jihad and disavowed the plan.
Today, they’re going for $60 billion in arms so again they want to look helpful, but it’s an act that is familiar once you are familiar with the history I trace in the book.
Q On balance, how do you see President Obama in terms of his significance for Israel-U.S. relations?
A First, it’s very important to point out that Saudi influence has been similar on all presidents. Only John F. Kennedy was willing to stand up to them: He told them they had to abolish slavery, in the 1960s. Jimmy Carter, Mr. Human Rights, became one of their biggest apologists, and, not surprisingly, the Carter Center has gotten millions of dollars in contributions from the Saudis. When Bill Clinton was an obscure governor and asked for Saudi money for the University of Arkansas, they ignored him, but once he became president, the university got $20 million. The Bushes have often been accused of being in the pocket of the Saudis, and they have had close ties to them, but the book documents how Republican and Democratic presidents have kowtowed to the Saudis.
I think that with Obama, in the first year, his policy was taken from the Arab lobby playbook. The Arab lobby’s premise has always been: If the U.S. will be “even-handed” with Israel, they will have supportive policies that are supportive of America. It’s a complete fallacy. You don’t get your way with the Arabs by beating up on Israel. The Muslim world didn’t become lovers of the U.S. and Obama because he made the mistake of giving the speech in Cairo in 2009. Everyone talks about that speech, but they forget that he stopped in Riyadh on the way to ask for support, and the king told him to jump in the lake. Another point: The Palestinians were perfectly happy to negotiate with Israel without a settlement freeze. Obama’s criticism of Israel alienated most Israelis. And for Israel to make difficult concessions and take risks for peace, they need to feel that America is behind them. Purely in terms of America’s objectives, in terms of what the president was trying to accomplish, it was a total failure. It took him about 18 months to figure it out.
Q You refer in the book to organizations like Americans for Peace Now and J Street as being “far left” of the political spectrum. How so?
A My criterion is whether they are supporting an approach that is undermining the Israel lobby, and helping the Arab lobby. In the case of J Street, their philosophy is similar to that of Arabists, who believe, one school of them at least, that Israel needs to be saved in spite of itself. This is the philosophy of J Street, that Israelis can’t do what’s good for them, and that they in America know better, and the only way that Israel can do what’s right is if the U.S. government forces them. That’s consistent with the thinking of the Arab lobby − and the polar opposite of the Israel lobby.
Q Where do you see yourself on the same continuum?
A I have a long publication record. If you see what I wrote in Commentary − that radical left-wing publication − back in 1988, you’ll see that I wrote that Israel should unilaterally withdraw from the territories. I have an opinion, like every other Jew, but I don’t pretend to believe that I, who doesn’t serve in the Israeli army or send my kids there, can decide for you. I supported Oslo, back in ‘93. I still think that Oslo was a calculated risk that made sense based on Israel-Egypt negotiations. At that time, it was the only model that worked. In this case, it didn’t work. I find that sometimes people have a different image of me, because I will speak about settlements in context. I talk about why they are there, and different categories of settlements. And I support the government of Israel when it’s Labor and when it’s Likud − or Kadima.