President Obama’s success in bringing Israelis and Palestinians together to discuss peace raised hopes that this long-standing conflict may be resolved. Everyone knows the issues are difficult, but what is less well known is how outside influences, notably the Arab lobby, can undermine the process.
“What Arab lobby?” people ask. It’s a reasonable question. After all, everyone has heard of the powerful and sinister Israel lobby, but few are aware that there is an equally powerful Arab counterpart that represents competing interests and has often successfully obstructed American initiatives in the region. The picture is further obscured by the naive assumption many Americans make that all Arabs are equally concerned with the Palestinian issue. In reality, the Arab lobby has historically acted to frustrate U.S. efforts to make peace.
The Arab lobby as it exists today is comprised of two main constituencies: the oil lobby comprised of Saudi Arabia, State Department Arabists, and oil and defense companies; and a domestic lobby focused on the Palestinian issue represented by Arab- and Muslim-Americans, non-evangelical Christians, academics and Arabists. Each has had a negative impact on the search for peace.
The Arabists see Israel as a major irritant in relations with the Arab world, one that must be pressured to make concessions to satisfy the demands not only of the Palestinians but, more importantly, the Saudis, out of fear that oil supplies will otherwise be endangered. President Obama’s first-year policies reflected this view as he publicly criticized Israel, demanded a settlement freeze and humiliated the prime minister on his first visit to Washington.
This ostensibly more “balanced” approach to the region undermined Mr. Obama’s larger goal of achieving peace, since any agreement that Israel might sign would entail grave risks and Israelis need to feel that the United States is solidly behind them.
The Saudis have also historically been spoilers. Anwar Sadat told Jimmy Carter it was imperative that the Saudis support the Camp David Accords. After giving personal assurances to Mr. Carter they would do so, however, the Saudis betrayed him and opposed the negotiations, ostracized Egypt and financed the most radical parties acting to sabotage the agreement.
During George W. Bush’s terms, Saudi backing for Hamas helped weaken Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. With the additional support of Iran, Hamas now has control of Gaza and rejects any peace agreement with Israel. This has left Mr. Abbas with no control over roughly 40 percent of the Palestinian population, and few Israelis believe he has the power to implement any agreement.
Mr. Obama’s Middle East agenda was undermined at the outset by the Saudis when he was led to believe that pressuring Israel would prompt the Saudis to make accommodating gestures toward Israel. King Abdullah embarrassed the president by opposing any such gestures. In June, he reportedly told the French defense minister, “There are two countries in the world that do not deserve to exist: Iran and Israel.” The Saudis denied the king made the statement, but it would be consistent with past expressions of hostility toward Israel. It was, therefore, not surprising the king was not among the leaders in Washington last week.
The domestic Arab lobby has little influence on negotiations but keeps the Palestinian issue boiling. Their focus is less on promoting peace than on driving a wedge between the United States and Israel by demanding greater U.S. pressure on Israel to make concessions, calling for a cutoff of aid and the imposition of sanctions, and condemning Israeli policies.
In December 1998, for example, after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian National Authority President Yasser Arafat signed the Wye agreement, committing Israel to withdraw from an additional 13 percent of the West Bank, Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright met with American Jewish and Arab leaders to encourage them to “build a constituency for peace.” While the Israeli lobby endorsed the meeting, Arab-American groups criticized various aspects of the negotiations and scurrilously accused Israel of ethnic cleansing.
These same groups are very likely to back the Saudi/Arabist approach of encouraging Mr. Obama to continue pressuring Israel and supporting irredentist demands they know are unacceptable, such as the insistence that Palestinian refugees be allowed to settle in Israel rather than in a Palestinian state. Meanwhile, other Arab lobby groups have emerged as supporters of Hamas and are likely to oppose negotiations that exclude the terrorist group.
The good news is that Israel is undeterred by the Arab lobby. When they found Arab partners with courage and vision, namely Anwar Sadat and Jordan’s King Hussein, the skeptics were proved wrong and peace treaties were signed. Today, Israelis want a peace agreement with the Palestinians and have repeatedly offered significant concessions (as much as 97 percent of the West Bank). If a courageous and visionary leader emerges on the Palestinian side, it may be possible to again defy the odds - and the Arab lobby - and achieve a just peace that provides statehood for the Palestinians and security to the Israelis.
Mitchell Bard is a foreign-policy analyst whose latest book is “The Arab Lobby: The Invisible Alliance That Undermines America’s Interests in the Middle East” (HarperCollins, 2010).