Friday, May 25, 2007

Massad on the Israel Lobby

Sorry about the formatting! I am clueless about how to fix it.

In the last 25 years, many Palestinians and other Arabs, in the
States and in the Arab world, have been so awed by the power of the
pro-Israel lobby that any study, book, or journalistic article that
exposes the inner workings, the substantial influence, and the
and political power of this lobby have been greeted with ecstatic
of relief that Americans finally can see the "truth" and the "error"
their ways.

The underlying argument has been simple and has been told time and
by Washington's regime allies in the Arab world, pro-US liberal and
intellectuals, conservative and liberal US intellectuals and former
politicians, and even leftist Arab and American activists who
Palestinian rights, namely, that absent the pro- Israel lobby,
would at worst no longer contribute to the oppression of Arabs and
Palestinians and at best it would be the Arabs' and the
best ally and friend.

What makes this argument persuasive and effective to Arabs? Indeed,
are its claims constantly brandished by Washington's Arab friends to
Arab and American audiences as a persuasive argument? I contend that
attraction of this argument is that it exonerates the United States'
government from all the responsibility and guilt that it deserves
its policies in the Arab world and gives false hope to many Arabs
Palestinians who wish America would be on their side instead of on
side of their enemies.

Let me start with the premise of the argument, namely its effect of
shifting the blame for US policies from the United States onto
and its US lobby. According to this logic, it is not the United
that should be held directly responsible for all its imperial
in the Arab world and the Middle East at large since World War II,
rather it is Israel and its lobby who have pushed it to launch
that are detrimental to its own national interest and are only
beneficial to Israel. Establishing and supporting Arab and other
East dictatorships, arming and training their militaries, setting up
their secret police apparatuses and training them in effective
methods and counter-insurgency to be used against their own citizens
should be blamed, according to the logic of these studies, on Israel
its US lobby.

Blocking all international and UN support for Palestinian rights,
and financing Israel in its war against a civilian population,
protecting Israel from the wrath of the international community
also be blamed not on the United States, the studies insist, but on
Israel and its lobby. Additionally, and in line with this logic,
controlling Arab economies and finances, dominating key investments
the Middle East, and imposing structural adjustment policies by the
and the World Bank which impoverish the Arab peoples should also be
blamed on Israel, and not the United States. Finally, starving and
invading Iraq, threatening to invade Syria, raiding and then
Libya and Iran, besieging the Palestinians and their leaders must
be blamed on the Israeli lobby and not the US government. Indeed,
the years, many pro-US Arab dictators let it leak officially and
unofficially that their US diplomat friends have told them time and
again how muc! h they and "America" support the Arab world and the
Palestinians were it not for the influence of the pro- Israel lobby
(sometimes identified by the American diplomats in more explicit
"ethnic" terms).

While many of the studies of the pro-Israel lobby are sound and full
awe-inspiring well- documented details about the formidable power
commanded by groups like the American Israel Public Affairs
(AIPAC) and its allies, the problem with most of them is what
unarticulated. For example, when and in what context has the United
States government ever supported national liberation in the Third
The record of the United States is one of being the implacable enemy
all Third World national liberation groups, including European ones,
from Greece to Latin America to Africa and Asia, except in the
celebrated cases of the Afghan fundamentalists' war against the USSR
supporting apartheid South Africa's main terrorist allies in Angola
Mozambique (UNITA and RENAMO) against their respective anti-colonial
national governments. Why then would the US support national
in the Arab world absent the pro-Israel lobby is something these
ne! ver explain.

The United States has had a consistent policy since World War II of
fighting all regimes across the Third World who insist on
their national resources, whether it be land, oil, or other valuable
minerals. This extends from Iran in 1953 to Guatemala in 1954 to the
rest of Latin America all the way to present-day Venezuela. Africa
fared much worse in the last four decades, as have many countries in
Asia. Why would the United States support nationalist regimes in the
Arab world who would nationalise natural resources and stop their
pillage by American capital absent the pro-Israel lobby also remains
mystery unexplained by these studies. Finally, the United States
government has opposed and overthrown or tried to overthrow any
that seeks real and tangible independence in the Third World and is
especially galled by those regimes that pursue such policies through
democratic elections.

The overthrow of regimes from Arbenz to Goulart to Mossadegh and
and the ongoing attempts to overthrow Chavez are prominent examples,
is the overthrow of nationalist regimes like Sukarno's and
The terror unleashed on populations who challenged the US-installed
friendly regimes from El Salvador and Nicaragua to Zaire to Chile
Indonesia resulted in the killing of hundreds of thousands, if not
millions by repressive police and militaries trained for these
tasks by the US. This is aside from direct US invasions of South
Asian and Central American countries that killed untold millions for

Why would the US and its repressive agencies stop invading Arab
countries, or stop supporting the repressive police forces of
dictatorial Arab regimes and why would the US stop setting up shadow
governments inside its embassies in Arab capitals to run these
countries' affairs (in some cases the US shadow government runs the
country in question down to the smallest detail with the Arab
in question reduced to executing orders) if the pro-Israel lobby did
exist is never broached by these studies let alone explained.

The arguments put forth by these studies would have been more
if the Israel lobby was forcing the United States government to
policies in the Middle East that are inconsistent with its global
policies elsewhere. This, however, is far from what happens. While
policies in the Middle East may often be an exaggerated form of its
repressive and anti- democratic policies elsewhere in the world,
are not inconsistent with them. One could easily make the case that
strength of the pro-Israel lobby is what accounts for this
but even this contention is not entirely persuasive. One could argue
(and I have argued elsewhere) that it is in fact the very centrality
Israel to US strategy in the Middle East that accounts, in part, for
strength of the pro-Israel lobby and not the other way around.

Indeed, many of the recent studies highlight the role of pro-Likud
members of the Bush administration (or even of the Clinton
administration) as evidence of the lobby's awesome power, when, i t
could be easily argued that it is these American politicians who had
pushed Likud and Labour into more intransigence in the 1990s and are
pushing them towards more conquest now that they are at the helm of
US government. This is not to say, however, that the leaders of the
pro-Israel lobby do not regularly brag about their crucial influence
US policy in Congress and in the White House. That they have done
regularly since the late 1970s.

But the lobby is powerful in the United States because its major
are about advancing US interests and its support for Israel is
contextualised in its support for the overall US strategy in the
East. The pro- Israel lobby plays the same role that the China lobby
played in the 1950s and the Cuba lobby still plays to this day. The
that it is more powerful than any other foreign lobby on Capitol
testifies to the importance of Israel in US strategy and not to some
fantastical power that the lobby commands independent of and
to the US "national interest." The pro-Israel lobby could not sell
message and would not have any influence if Israel was a communist
anti-imperialist country or if Israel opposed US policy elsewhere in

Some would argue that even though Israel attempts to overlap its
interests with those of the US, that its lobby is misleading
policy- makers and shifting their position from one of objective
assessment of what is truly in America's best interest and that of
Israel's. The argument runs as follows: US support for Israel causes
groups who oppose Israel to hate the US and target it for attacks.
also costs the US friendly media coverage in the Arab world, affects
investment potential in Arab countries, and loses its important
in the region, or at least weakens these allies. But none of this is
true. The United States has been able to be Israel's biggest backer
financier, its staunchest defender and weapon-supplier while
strategic alliances with most if not all Arab dictatorships,
the Palestinian Authority under both Yasser Arafat and Mahmoud

Moreover, US companies and American investments have the largest
presence across the Arab world, most prominently but not exclusively
the oil sector. Also, even without the pathetic and ineffective
at US propaganda in the guise of the television station Al-Hurra, or
Radio Sawa and the now-defunct Hi magazine, not to mention US-paid
journalists and newspapers in Iraq and elsewhere, a whole army of
newspapers and state-television stations, not to mention myriad
satellite television stations celebrate the US and its culture,
broadcast American programmes, and attempt to sell the US point of
as effectively as possible encumbered only by the limitations that
actual US policies in the region place on common sense. Even the
offending Al-Jazeera has bent over backwards to accommodate the US
of view but is constantly undercut by actual US policies in the
Al-Jazeera, under tremendous pressure and threats of bombing from
United State! s, has for example stopped referring to the US
forces in Iraq as "occupation forces" and now refers to them as
"coalition forces". Moreover, since when has the US sought to win a
popularity contest among the peoples of the world? Arabs no more
hate or
love the United States than do Latin Americans, Africans, Asians, or
even and especially Europeans.

Finally we come to the financial argument, namely that the US gives
inordinate amount of money to Israel -- too exorbitant a cost that
out of proportion to what the US gets in return. In fact, the United
States spends much more on its military bases in the Arab world, not
mention on those in Europe or Asia, than it does on Israel. Israel
indeed been very effective in rendering services to its US master
for a
good price, whether in channelling illegal arms to central American
dictatorships in the 1970s and 1980s, helping pariah regimes like
and apartheid South Africa in the same period, supporting pro-US,
including Fascist, groups inside the Arab world to undermine
Arab regimes, from Lebanon to Iraq to Sudan, coming to the aid of
conservative pro- US Arab regimes when threatened as it did in
Jordan in
1970, and attacking Arab nationalist regimes outright as it did in
with Egypt and Syria and in 1981 with Iraq when it destroyed that
untry's nuclear reactor.

While the US had been able to overthrow Sukarno and Nkrumah in
coups, Nasser remained entrenched until Israel effectively
him in the 1967 War. It is thanks to this major service that the
States increased its support to Israel exponentially. Moreover,
neutralised the PLO in 1982, no small service to many Arab regimes
their US patron who could not fully control the organisation until
None of the American military bases on which many more billions are
spent can claim such a stellar record. Critics argue that when the
had to intervene in the Gulf, it could not rely on Israel to do the
because of the sensitivity of including it in such a coalition which
would embarrass Arab allies, hence the need for direct US
and the uselessness of Israel as a strategic ally. While this may be
true, the US also could not rely on any of its military bases to
the invasions on their own and had to ship in its army. American !
in the Gulf did provide important and needed support but so did

AIPAC is indeed powerful insofar as it pushes for policies that
with US interests and that are resonant with the reigning US
ideology. The power of the pro-Israel lobby, whether in Congress or
campuses among university administrators, or policy-makers is not
solely on their organisational skills or ideological uniformity. In
small measure, anti- Semitic attitudes in Congress (and among
administrators) play a role in believing the lobby's (and its
exaggerated claims about its actual power, resulting in their towing
line. But even if this were true, one could argue, it would not
whether the lobby has real or imagined power. For as long as
and policy-makers (and university administrators) believe it does,
will remain effective and powerful. I of course concede this point.

What then would have been different in US policy in the Middle East
absent Israel and its powerful lobby? The answer in short is: the
details and intensity but not the direction, content, or impact of
policies. Is the pro- Israel lobby extremely powerful in the United
States? As someone who has been facing the full brunt of their power
the last three years through their formidable influence on my own
university and their attempts to get me fired, I answer with a
resounding yes. Are they primarily responsible for US policies
the Palestinians and the Arab world? Absolutely not.

The United States is opposed in the Arab world as elsewhere because
has pursued and continues to pursue policies that are inimical to
interests of most people in these countries and are only beneficial
its own interests and to the minority regimes in the region that
those interests, including Israel. Absent these policies, and not
pro-Israel lobby which supports them, the United States should
expect a
change in its standing among Arabs. Short of that, the United States
will have to continue its policies in the region that have wreaked,
continue to wreak, havoc on the majority of Arabs and not expect
the Arab people will like it in return.

Joseph Massad is associate professor of modern Arab politics and
intellectual history at Columbia University. His recent book The
Persistence of the Palestinian Question was published by Routledge.

This essay originally appeared in Al-Ahram.

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