AIPAC: When Israel lobbies for the Arabs

Even when AIPAC or the Israeli government were not opposing a sale, some supporters in Congress would immediately declare their intent to lead the fight to kill it.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at the AIPAC policy conference in Washington, DC, U.S., March 6, 2018 (photo credit: BRIAN SNYDER/REUTERS)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at the AIPAC policy conference in Washington, DC, U.S., March 6, 2018
(photo credit: BRIAN SNYDER/REUTERS)
For many years the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) had a reputation – inaccurate but not unwelcome – for reflexively opposing nearly every arms sale to any Arab country it considered hostile to Israel.
Even when AIPAC or the Israeli government were not opposing a sale, some supporters in Congress would immediately declare their intent to lead the fight to kill it. They wanted to show they were great friends intent on protecting Israel’s security.
So it must have come as a shock to many when AIPAC announced last week that it had no objection to the multi-billion-dollar sale of 50 of the world’s most sophisticated fighters, the stealthy F-35, and a batch of advanced drones and smart weapons, to the United Arab Emirates. Many of Israel’s Capitol Hill friends objected, including 47 senators who voted last week unsuccessfully to block the sale.
Lining up against them were the UAE and Trump administration – and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The Israeli premier had initially announced his opposition to the sale, but that was untrue because he knew it was the linchpin of the Emirates’ decision to normalize diplomatic relations with Israel. He ultimately gave the sale his public blessing after using it to leverage sweeteners for Israel’s $3.3 billion annual aid package.
AIPAC built its muscular reputation on winning votes for Israel’s massive aid program and fighting weapons sales to Israel’s enemies.
Less well known are the times the lobby and the Israelis went to bat for the so-called other side. Of course, by law, AIPAC and the Israeli government are totally separate and don’t work together, but they have an uncanny ability to know what the other is thinking.
Just this month they were lobbying not only to help UAE beef up its arsenal with weapons some defense officials in Tel Aviv warned would weaken Israel’s qualitative military edge, but also to help get Sudan off the US list of state supporters of terrorism. Both are elements of US-brokered deals to formalize diplomatic relations with Israel in exchange for favors from Washington.
Israeli diplomats here have been lobbying Congress to give Sudan immunity from future lawsuits in the United States by victims of terrorism – one of the demands by the Khartoum government as the price of normalizing relations with Israel, according to Axios. News agencies report the Trump administration offered 9/11 victims about $700 million to drop their claims against Sudan.
Sudan has threatened to cancel the deal with Israel if Washington doesn’t meet its demands. It scored a big one this week when the Trump administration removed it from the terrorism list after 27 years. Sudan had given sanctuary and assistance to Osama bin Laden prior to 9/11, hosted al-Qaeda training camps, and was a longtime conduit for Iranian arms for Palestinian terrorists in Gaza.
Morocco agreed to partially formalize long-standing relations with Israel in exchange for Washington’s recognition of its sovereignty claims in the disputed Western Sahara.
No other nation has recognized the claim, which is disputed by the pro-independence Polisario Front. President Donald Trump, who hailed the deal as a historic breakthrough, ran into strong opposition from an unexpected source: Sen. James Inhofe (R-Oklahoma), a Trump loyalist and chairman of the Armed Services Committee, who accused the administration of having “traded away” “the rights of the Western Saharan people.”
Immediately after the White House announced the Morocco agreement, the Trump administration notified Congress of a billion-dollar arms sale to the kingdom that includes Reaper drones and laser-guided munitions, valuable for its war in the Western Sahara.
Purdue historian Stacy E. Holden writes that the Moroccans “got the better” of the Americans in this deal. They’ve won recognition of their claims to Western Sahara in return for public acknowledgment of a relationship with Israel that has been going on for years, he noted.
Trump got bragging rights for these breakthroughs, which are important but not of historic proportion since they are essentially an incremental step up for long-standing relationships. US taxpayers will be spending billions, and American defense companies will be signing billions in deals. And in the world of deals, don’t be surprised to see Trump Hotels and Trump Towers go up in many of these countries in the near future, maybe a Trump’s American Café in Casablanca.
Actually, many of these deals appear shaky and could fall through if there are bumps in relations with Israel. And Washington, which helped put them together, will be expected to put out any fires.
It has long been known that for nations across the Middle East, the road to Washington often leads through Jerusalem.
If you’re Egypt in the 1970s and just threw out the Soviet Union and need a new source of money and weapons, you know you must make peace with Israel or Congress won’t go along.
If you’re the PLO and want US recognition, you’ve got to renounce terrorism and recognize Israel’s right to exist.
If you’re Sri Lanka and want Israeli weapons and training for your war against the Tamil Tigers, the American secretary of state won’t be your middleman but will insist you speak directly to the Israelis. (Eventually, the two countries developed close military and diplomatic relations.)
If you’re Morocco in the 1980s, before your low-key relationship with Israel is well-known to many in Congress, AIPAC lobbyists and Israeli diplomats will persuade well-meaning friends in Congress to drop their opposition to the sale of F-5 fighter jets to the kingdom.
In the aftermath of the 1982 Lebanon war in which Israel drove the PLO out of its northern neighbor, AIPAC was asked by the administration to spread the word to its friends on the Hill that it had no objection to sending US troops and economic assistance. A grateful Lebanese ambassador made a secret visit to AIPAC offices to thank the group for its help and share some information about help by Arab embassies for Arab-American groups.
President-elect Joe Biden wants Egypt to clean up its abysmal human rights record. “No more blank checks for Trump’s ‘favorite dictator,’” he tweeted last summer.
 If that impacts Cairo’s financial and military aid, stand by for a race between AIPAC and Israeli diplomats to see who can get to the Hill first to protect Egypt.
That’s what happened in the past when the House Foreign Affairs Committee tried to link Egypt’s aid package to its human rights record. Jerusalem was worried that an angry Egyptian president would blame the Israeli government.
Turkey was another problem. Whenever there was talk in Congress of labeling Turkey’s 1915-23 mass slaughter of Armenians as genocide, Ankara’s first response was to blame the Jews, since some of the sponsors were Jews, and threaten relations with Israel.
The Turks would call the Israelis, who would frantically call friends in Washington for help quashing the move. At AIPAC, we refused to help, but the State Department would weigh in about damage to the NATO relationship and the matter would die.
Congress officially recognized the genocide only last year, but the Trump administration still does not. Neither does the Israeli government.
The incoming Biden administration has been talking about reassessing relations with Saudi Arabia, another notorious human rights offender. I fully expect Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to call his friend Bibi Netanyahu to speak to his friends in Washington and dangle formal diplomatic relations with the Jewish state in exchange for getting Biden off his back. It’s unclear how many friends Netanyahu will have in the Biden White House.
AIPAC built its muscular reputation on its battles to block arms sales to countries at war with the Jewish state. The biggest and baddest was Saudi Arabia, which narrowly won approval for its $8.5-billion-plus purchase of AWACS early warning aircraft, enhancements for its F-15 fighter jets and more. The kingdom that couldn’t mention the Zionist entity without cursing and wishing for its demise could soon be turning to it for help.