Don’t miss the companion piece The Arab Lobby; the American Component
In the early 1980s, there was a palpable concern among staffers at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) of the looming rise of an Arab-American lobby aimed at challenging the pro-Israel community. The National Association of Arab-Americans (NAAA), founded in 1972, was at a high point, and in 1980, former U.S. senator James Abourezk established the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC). In 1985, James Zogby added the Arab American Institute. Some pundits predicted that AIPAC had finally met its match, and a few of AIPAC’s own top supporters were alarmed. The Arab-American lobby looked as if it was on an upward trajectory.
An Arab-American Lobby?
Hezbollah’s secretary general Hassan Nasrallah publicly admitted that without European Union aid and backing, “our funding [and] moral, political, and material support will … dry up.”
However, attempts to mobilize Americans of Arab origin in a crusade against Israel have been limited by the fact that this agenda is not a critical interest for the majority. About two thirds of Arab Americans (63 percent) derive from Christian minorities in the Middle East, who have suffered at the hands of extremist Arab-nationalist and Muslim groups in their home countries. More than half of all Arab Americans are Lebanese and Syrian Christians, who know the damage done to Lebanon by Syrian Baathists, Palestinian terrorists, and the Shiite Hezbollah. A third of all Arab Americans are Maronite Christians and are more faithfully represented by organizations such as the American Lebanese League, devoted to saving Lebanon from Arab extremists, rather than organizations crusading against Israel or supporting the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). Only a minority of Arab Americans, then and now, seeks to support organizations whose sole or main purpose is conducting political action against Israel; and some of those who are attracted to the anti-Israel agenda are so radical that such organizations do not want them.
The largest Arab-American group, the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC), attracts recruits by combating anti-Arab bias and stereotyping inside the United States, a cause understandably closer to the hearts of many mainstream Arab-American families than importing into the United States the struggle against Israel that brought so much misery in their countries of origin. The National Association of Arab-Americans, which focused on the Israel agenda, has ceased to exist altogether since it merged into ADC in 2001. Today, Arab-American organizations are a factor in the Middle East debate but certainly have not risen to a level that can challenge the influence of the American friends of Israel.
A Petrodollar Lobby?
Another issue that raised concern in the pro-Israel community in the 1980s was the growth of a “petrodollar lobby” in the United States, fueled by the giant oil companies and embassies of Middle East countries such as Saudi Arabia, awash in a flood of money since the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) quadrupled oil prices in the 1970s. AIPAC founder Isaiah Kenen had described the Arab lobby as a “petro diplomatic complex.” Steven Emerson wrote about the petrodollar lobby in his 1985 best-seller, The American House of Saud, revealing how Arab embassies and firms that seek Arab contracts employ prominent U.S. figures such as former Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman William Fulbright, former White House aide Frederick G. Dutton, former secretary of the treasury William Simon, former Texas governor John Connally, former budget director Bert Lance, and former vice president Spiro Agnew.
Yet it is difficult to see significant evidence of the impact of the petrodollar lobby in the Arab-Israeli sphere or any major effort on their part to interfere in the bilateral relationship between the United States and Israel. Oil firms, Arab embassies, and their lobbyists do have considerable influence in the sphere of energy policy, and on some Persian Gulf issues, including arms sales to Arab gulf states. But their main focus is on the rich and comparatively moderate Arab countries, not Israel’s less prosperous neighbors such as Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, and the Palestinians. And they have shown no signs of seeking to do battle against AIPAC and the friends of Israel. In fact, on a few select projects (notably Turkey policy and the Baku-Ceyhan Caspian pipeline), AIPAC and their interests have aligned and the two lobbies have in fact cooperated with each other. Even when they differed, as on Iran, it was a clash of interests about economic sanctions rather than an ideological dispute about Iran itself.
Europe as the Real Arab Lobby
Long experience in Washington leads to a different and somewhat surprising conclusion. The strongest external force pressuring the U.S. government to distance itself from Israel is not the Arab-American organizations, the Arab embassies, the oil companies, or the petrodollar lobby. Rather, it is the Europeans, especially the British, French, and Germans, that are the most influential Arab lobby to the U.S. government. The Arabs know this, so their preferred road to Washington often runs through Brussels or London or Paris. Nabil Shaath, then Palestinian Authority “foreign minister,” said in 2004 that the European Union is “the ally of our choice.”
The Arabs consider Europe to be the soft underbelly of the U.S. alliance with Israel and the best way to drive a wedge between the two historic allies.
The Europeans are particularly formidable in their influence over U.S. Middle East policy because of four advantages. First, although there exist subtle differences, many European leaders share a broad set of common beliefs about Israel, the Palestinians, the Arab world, and the Middle East conflict that are considerably closer to the Arab perspective than to Jerusalem’s point of view, and closer to the Arab end of the spectrum than the prevailing views of U.S. policymakers.
Second, they—especially representatives of Britain, Germany, and France—have easier and closer access to U.S. officials up to and including the president than do either the Arabs or the Israelis.
Third, the Europeans couch their presentations within a wider framework of shared values and interests and mutual trust with the United States, so the message is taken more seriously than if it came from an unelected leader of an Arab society vastly different from the United States.
Fourth, U.S. officials believe that it is in the national interest to keep the European allies happy, lest they change to an independent European policy toward the Middle East, falling under the sway of such Europeanists as former European Union commissioner for external affairs Christopher Patten. Thus, for example, Patten said in July 2010, “The default European position should not be … if the Americans don’t do anything, to wring our hands. We should … be more explicit in setting out Europe’s objectives and … try to implement them.” 
The direct access to the president that is available to the prime minister of the U.K., the president of France, and the chancellor of Germany has less to do with the personal chemistry that may exist between them and any given U.S. president than with the objective importance of their countries to the United States. Britain, France, and Germany are three of the top six economies in the world and three of the top six military powers, as ranked by defense expenditures. Two of them—France and Britain—are among the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council who hold the power to veto. The same two are among the world’s leading nuclear powers. Four European countries—France, Germany, Britain, and Italy—sit among the Group of Eight (G8), a forum also including the United States, Canada, Russia, and Japan. The British, French, and German governments have the greatest influence over the foreign policy of the European Union and the greatest influence over Europe’s voice in the Middle East Quartet (which consists of the United States, the EU, Russia, and the U.N.).
The United States also has a longer and deeper history of shared values and common interests with the major European countries, and fewer conflicting interests, than with Russia, China, or any Arab nation. For sixty-five years, Britain, France, and Germany have been our key allies in the United States’ principal military and political alliance, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Their opinions are stated in a moderate tone and are deemed to be more reasonable than the majority of Arab countries. There is a presumption on both sides that they are America’s principal partners, the ones whose interests Washington must always take into account, and who can be expected to give greater deference to America’s own needs.
This presumption of shared interests also gives European counterparts privileged access and enhanced credibility with senior members of the U.S. bureaucracy at the National Security Council, the Department of State, the Pentagon, and within the intelligence community and other agencies. Assistant secretaries, office directors, and senior advisers give special weight to the opinions of their French, German, and British counterparts and spend more time with them than they do with the Arabs. These Europeans also have easy access to members of Congress and their senior staffs.
Deadlines for a Palestinian State
One of the things the Europeans want from Washington is intensified pressure on Jerusalem to make concessions in peace negotiations, in order to get an agreement with the Palestinians. Europeans like the idea of deadlines, international conferences, verbal and economic pressure on Israel, and other devices, to dislodge the Israeli government from what they tend to see as its “intransigence.”
For example, in 2002, the Europeans hatched the idea of a “road map” with deadlines for the creation of a Palestinian state to force Israeli-Palestinian negotiations to a conclusion. On September 17, 2002, European officials presented a plan to Washington that they had drafted with Palestinian participation and endorsement. Jerusalem strenuously objected to deadlines that ignored Palestinian noncompliance with past signed obligations, and U.S. officials expressed reservations about the European approach because the blueprint was too detailed at too early a stage. But Secretary of State Colin Powell, nonetheless, joined the EU, the secretary general of the United Nations, and Russian foreign minister Igor Ivanov in signing the Quartet statement announcing “a concrete, three-phase implementation road map that could achieve a final settlement within three years.” German foreign ministry spokesman Andreas Michaelis said that the content of the Quartet pact was “nearly identical” to proposals put forward by EU foreign ministers. EU Middle East envoy Miguel Angel Moratinos said it was “a European idea and not an American idea.” It was a vehicle for European and U.S. pressure on Israel.
Washington was able to condition the road map deadlines, however, by insisting that the plan be “performance based.” While the road map announced “clear phases, timelines, target dates, and benchmarks,” the Bush administration forced the Quartet partners to agree that
progress between the three phases would be strictly based on the parties’ compliance with specific performance benchmarks to be monitored and assessed by the Quartet … Progress … will be based upon the consensus judgment of the Quartet of whether conditions are appropriate to proceed, taking into account performance of both parties.
However, by 2010, the road map has still not produced a Palestinian state, and the Europeans are again growing impatient about the slow pace of negotiations. European leaders are beginning to revert to their original concept of deadlines and a date certain to force an earlier result. In July 2009, Europe’s foreign policy chief Javier Solana called for the U.N. Security Council to recognize a Palestinian state by a certain deadline even if Israelis and Palestinians had failed to agree among themselves:
After a fixed deadline, a UN Security Council resolution should proclaim the adoption of the two-state solution … set a calendar for implementation … [and] accept the Palestinian state as a full member of the UN … If the parties are not able to stick to it [the timetable], then a solution backed by the international community should be put on the table. 
Solana’s plan is a classic example of the pressure paradigm: Frustrated by the slow pace of direct negotiations between the parties, the world powers seek to dictate a final status outcome, especially to Israel.
French foreign minister Bernard Kouchner moved in the same direction in February 2010: “One can imagine a Palestinian state being … recognized by the international community, even before negotiating its borders. I would be tempted by that.” Kouchner and his Spanish counterpart Moratinos wrote that the European Union “must not confine itself to the … outlines of the final settlement;” it “should collectively recognize the Palestinian State … There is no more time to lose. Europe must pave the way.”
The EU as a whole has not gone this far yet. In November 2009, the Palestinians formally asked the EU to urge the U.N. Security Council to recognize a unilaterally declared state, only to be told that conditions were not yet ripe for such a move. But in March 2010, under EU pressure, the Quartet set a 24-month deadline for final settlement of the conflict and the creation of an independent Palestinian state. Kouchner said: “France supports the creation of a viable, independent, democratic Palestinian state … by the first quarter of 2012.”