Undoing peace

James Zogby’s Column

Pro-Israel groups in the United States have launched an aggressive legislative and propaganda effort to complement the anti-peace politics of the Sharon government. During the past few months, they have succeeded in pressing their allies in Congress to introduce a number of resolutions designed to punish the Palestinians and strain US ties with a number of Arab countries. While these efforts have not been totally successful, they have done significant damage. The sheer number of bills introduced, and the fact that they have steered the Congress in a negative anti-Arab direction, has resulted in reestablishing a pre-peace antagonistic mindset regarding the Middle East debate.

The effort to stop US aid to Lebanon is a case in point. Supporters of Israel introduced legislation designed to block the already paltry US assistance to that much beleaguered country. The arguments they used against Lebanon ran the gamut from opposition to aiding Hizbollah and Syria to claims that the Lebanese government disqualifies itself from assistance because it has failed to honour its agreements with the United Nations (and Israel).

To its credit the Bush administration came out in strong opposition to the anti-Lebanon bill. A concerted and coordinated lobbying effort, which brought together the embassy and a number of Arab American organisations, resulted in almost defeating the legislation. It won by a mere six-vote margin, 216-210. But even this close result only came after pro-Israel groups made a full-court press, leading 17 members to switch their votes at the last minute. Faced with a less than certain future in the Senate, the bill’s sponsors are now proposing a compromise amendment that would ban US aid to any Lebanese village “controlled by Hizbollah”. The State Department opposes this too and so it may well fail. But part of this exercise has not been to pass a law, but to poison the US-Lebanon relationship and steer the congressional discourse in an anti-Lebanon pro-Israel direction.

The same has been true in the discussion of US aid to Egypt. In the weeks before President Hosni Mubarak’s visit to the United States, pro-Israel lobbyists and their supporters in Congress worked overtime to propagandise against Egypt. Their principal target they claimed was Egypt’s “incitement against Israel” and Egypt’s role as an obstacle to peace between Israel and the Palestinians. They produced newspaper ads, brochures and organised press conferences all focused on denouncing Egypt.

In response, the Egyptian government smartly invited Arab Americans and American Jews to host a “peace luncheon” with Mubarak. That event also provided the Jewish leaders with an opportunity to raise their questions with the president. He answered each and every one and, to some degree, helped to clear the air regarding several misgivings that had been prompted by the anti-Egypt campaign. The Egyptians also produced a booklet of their own, detailing Israel’s anti-Arab incitement. It was effective, but its distribution was too limited.

Undeterred, some members of Congress have begun a push to end Egypt’s military aid from the United States, claiming that Egypt has no enemies. They seek to replace it with economic aid – which would be phased out after a period of time.

The major push in Congress, of course, is focused on delegitimising and punishing the Palestinians. One bill calls on the United States to not only suspend all assistance to the Palestinians, but also to close down the Palestinian office in Washington, make members of the PLO ineligible for US visas and place PLO groups on the United States’ “terrorism list”. According to this legislation, the president would have to certify every six months that the Palestinian National Authority is living up to its peace commitments or else the sanctions would take effect.

In recent days, a compromise of sorts was worked out on this issue. The requirements of the bill have been toned down and the sanctions reduced. In addition, a waiver provision has been added, which allows the president to dismiss the entire effort if he deems that it is “in the national security interests of the United States” that he do so. So, even if the new anti-Palestinian provision passes, the president, following the precedent of the past administration, would most probably use his waiver prerogative. Nevertheless, as a result of the ongoing debate, damage has been done.

All of these bills have either been watered down or compromised because of White House opposition. But with Congress engaged almost weekly in one anti-Arab campaign after another, the overall US-Arab relationship has been strained.

It is true that some members of Congress did stand up and oppose these hostile campaigns, and Arab Americans have been responding energetically to all of this anti-Arab propaganda. But for most members of Congress, this entire effort has been a reminder that the Middle East is an area they would prefer to avoid – and, if they have to vote, to take the path of least resistance. The net effect of the past few months has been to see the halls of Congress overwhelmed by anti-Arab initiatives and rhetoric.

If the strategy of the pro-Israel groups has been to recreate the pre-peace equation of Israel and the United States versus “the Arabs”, then they can probably claim some success. As the Arab American Institute noted in a release it issued one week ago, “while US diplomats are working to promote peace in the Middle East, some members of Congress seek to endanger it”. The release then went on to give a “congressional list of shame” – noting those members of Congress who were sponsoring the anti-Arab campaign.

These are different times and will probably become more difficult. We are facing a full plate of challenges, fighting as best we can. What is worth noting is that while this hostile assault on several Arab countries and the US-Arab relationship is under way, some major US Jewish organisations have issued attacks against Arab Americans, accusing the community of being “anti-peace”. The frequency and intensity of these attacks cannot be taken lightly. It appears that after Lebanon, Egypt and the Palestinians, we may become the next target in this continuing effort to undo the last remnants of the 1990s peace process.

We will, of course, challenge this characterisation and fight back. We have allies and we will work with them to secure our position and to restore a positive dynamic in the US-Arab relationship.