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The way lobbies operate in US

By Mohammed Alkhereiji,
Arab News Staff


The first amendment to the US constitution is the basis to the most powerful influence in American foreign policy decision-making — the lobby.

Under the right to petition, lobbies representing foreign governments seek to promote, block or shape US policies in the interest of that country, a group of countries or a militant opposition. Lobbyists on behalf of foreign causes became significant with the emergence of the US as a world power after World War II.

Every foreign nation in conflict saw possible solutions in Washington. Leaders from all corners of the world realized that understanding and influencing the processes of government and opinion in the US capital could open the doors to substantial military and economic aid, the opportunity to buy arms, support in the United Nations from a country with veto power and support from multilateral lending agencies.

The most powerful US lobby is the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). In 1999, Fortune Magazine named it the second-most powerful lobby in Washington after the American Association for Retired Persons. After World War II, a strong feeling of sympathy developed in the US for the Jews. Realizing this the American Jewish community saw the creation of a Jewish state as the ultimate security for Jews all over the world. This led to the formation of the American Zionist Committee for Public Affairs in 1951, which later changed its name to AIPAC in order to keep up with America's "politically correct" climate.

A huge factor in AIPAC's success comes from its support from the Jewish community across America. Jewish Americans are wealthy and politically active. The percentage of Jews that vote in US elections is the highest of any ethnic group. Over the years AIPAC has gone from a one-man operation to what it is today: More then 100 employees with seven regional offices and a budget of approximately $15 million. It also lobbies both the Executive and Legislative Branches.

AIPAC's objectives are:

  • Securing continuing aid to Israel with the most powerful terms.
  • Obtaining the most advanced US weapons possible.
  • Moving the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
  • Preserving tax-exempt status for Jewish fund-raising in the US.
  • Opposing strongly any US measures or proposals seen as a threat to the security of Israel, including arms for Arab countries and peace proposals that would require Israeli concessions.

In order to gain wider support from the US public, the lobby has stressed certain themes:

  • Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East;
  • During the "Cold War," Israel was a "strategic asset" to America;
  • On international issues, Israel is a reliable US ally.

There are a number of Arab groups that try and compete with AIPAC, but none came close in support or effectiveness. From the start, the Arab lobby faced not only a disadvantage in electoral politics but also in organization. The formal Arab lobby is the National Association of Arab-Americans (NAAA), a registered domestic lobby founded in 1972. Like AIPAC, NAAA makes its case on the basis of US national interest, arguing a pro-Israel policy harms those interests.

Aid to Israel is criticized as a waste of taxpayer's money, and the potential benefits of a closer relationship with Arab states are emphasized.

However, the Arab lobby has to contend with many obstacles; the absence of a large voting bloc requires the Arab lobby to develop sympathies among the general public and their success in this area has been mediocre at best. Since the late 60s, polls have found that sympathy for Israel has averaged around 46 percent, while sympathy for the Arabs has averaged around only 12 percent and has been in a downward spiral since the attacks on the World Trade Center. Thus, the Arab lobby's problem is twofold; it suffers from a negative image and Israel enjoys a very positive one.

But could a change be in the making? Arab-Americans, especially long- standing established communities in places such as Michigan and Ohio, have become a powerful force in local politics. Michigan, in particular, has become a major hub for Arab political power. The state has consistently sent to Washington representatives and senators sympathetic to Arab causes - including Spencer Abraham, currently the only Arab member of the US Senate. In the lobby game the only way to win is to have the majority of public opinion on your side. This has proven to be a hard task, but by no means impossible.