A Tale of Two Lobbies

By Ruth R. Wisse
Wednesday, September 8, 2010

The problem of the Arab-Israel conflict begins with the term itself, which misrepresents the unilateral Arab war against Israel as a bilateral dispute. Unilateral aggression is not unheard of—when did Poland ever aggress against Germany or Russia?—but nothing in United Nations history compares in intensity or fixity with Arab belligerence toward Israel, a UN member state.

The Arab war has less to do with the scant physical space occupied by the Jewish state than with the opportunity it offers Arab leaders to consolidate their power and prestige by organizing against an external target, especially one trailing so long and encrusted a history of religious and ethnic vilification. This same politics of blame has been no less useful to Westerners like, most recently, Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer in their 2006 indictment of America's "Israel Lobby." Had these two respected academics set out to study dispassionately the role of American special-interest groups in the making of Middle East policy, they might have unearthed a fascinating contrast in the disparate way that Arabs and Jews operate. Instead, by single-mindedly fingering the Jews, they neatly drew attention away from the larger story of Arab influence-peddlers.  

Now at last comes the information missing from Walt and Mearsheimer's screed. In Mitchell Bard's The Arab Lobby, we see how, in contrast to the altogether transparent workings of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), a lobby supported by tens of thousands of American citizens across political lines, the Arab lobby truly does merit being called, in Bard's subtitle, an "invisible alliance that undermines America's interests in the Middle East."

Mitchell Bard was the logical person to supply the untold story. Trained in political science, public policy, and economics, he has made a specialty of separating Middle Eastern myths from facts, and his writing, whether on academic subjects or for popular audiences, is marked by careful research and thorough documentation. The details speak for themselves.

The present book, divided into fifteen chapters, begins with the "seeds" of the Arab lobby that were sown by King Saud of Saudi Arabia in the World War II era and that still bear fruit today. The basic message to America remains remarkably consistent: We have the oil. Maintain us in power and we will guarantee your deliveries. We will also purchase American arms—to the tune, Bard writes, of $100 billion over 50 years—to keep ourselves in power and thus maintain the security of your supply.

Bard does not shrink from the term "blackmail" to describe the process whereby the Saudis have periodically threatened to close the spigot whenever Washington appears to oppose their interests and fixed habits, which happen to include the denial of human rights at home, militant opposition to Israel abroad, the global spread of extremist Islam, and support of international terror.

The last-named activity ought to have turned the spotlight on Saudi Arabian double-dealing when fifteen of the nineteen suicide bombers in the 9/11 attack on American soil turned out to be Saudi nationals. Instead, the opposite occurred, as the royal family seized the opportunity to extend Arab influence in the world of ideas by pouring tens of millions of dollars into Islamic programs in American universities and other educational initiatives. The staggering sums are listed by Bard, along with descriptions of what these sums are buying in programming, from college courses through K-12 education. The influence is palpable not only in what gets taught but in what has been excluded: namely, courses on radical Islam, Arab anti-Semitism, Arab anti-Americanism, or anything else that might explain the real and present danger. What Jewish lobbying works to clarify and uncover, Arab influence has been successfully deployed to obscure.

The research compiled by Walt and Mearsheimer for The Israel Lobby, shoddy as much of it was, was taken from publicly available sources. Arab lobbyists and their clients conduct their most serious business in secret. The U.S. State Department, where Arabists are most influential, does not declassify its cables for 25 years, and even then, Bard writes, "we do not know how much of [Arab lobbying] activity is kept secret for national-security reasons, concealed to avoid embarrassment, [or] destroyed purposely or inadvertently."

The Arab Lobby is not an elegant book, and would have benefited from editorial polishing. But it rests on a solid background of painstaking research. Some of its repetitive quality, moreover, is attributable to the unchanging nature of Arab politics. American Jews could do America—and ultimately the Arabs—no greater service than to focus on setting the record straight, and to do so by taking a page from Bard and rejecting their customary defensiveness. They are not the defendants in this case; they are rightly the plaintiffs. 

Ruth R. Wisse is professor of Yiddish and comparative literature at Harvard. Her books include Jews and Power (Schocken)The Modern Jewish Canon (Free Press), and a forthcoming edition of The Glatstein Chronicles (Yale). 

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