OVER THE NEXT two weeks as Congress debates the sale of $350 million in military spare parts to Saudi Arabia, one voice will be stilled. The American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the pro-Israel lobby, the bane of all previous administrations' attempts to sell arms to the Arabs, is sitting this one out.
How can it be that members of Congress will be deprived of AIPAC's counsel? Quite simply, because a revolution has occurred. Not at AIPAC, but within the United States government. American Middle East policy has shifted so dramatically in favor of Israel that the pro-Israel lobby is, in effect, willing to "give this one" to the administration.
AIPAC's executive director, Tom Dine, describes the 1986 U.S.-Israeli relationship this way: "It is a deep, broad-based partnership progressing day-by-day toward a full-fledged diplomatic and military alliance." His hero is George Shultz, whom he calls the "architect of the special relationship." Citing Shultz's crucial role in providing $1.5 billion in emergency economic aid to Israel last year, Dine says, "George Shultz has made himself the U.S. project manager for Israel's economy."
Seen from the Arab perspective, Shultz is more like a villain. "Arab ambassadors can't do anything in Washington. Shultz doesn't want to get involved," argues one Arab diplomat. Complains another: "The Arab moderates are scared that the U.S. is undermining their position. But they are too weak to do anything about it."
State Department Arabists acknowledge that Arab interests hardly get a hearing today in Washington. "We used to have a two-track policy," says one former State Department official. "Now only Israel's interests are considered."
How did this revolution in American-Israeli relations happen? Was it the result of explicit Israeli efforts to change American policies, or of a less-deliberate combination of forces? How much credit -- or blame -- does AIPAC itself deserve for changing attitudes in Congress and the administration? And is the change in U.S. Mideast policy likely to be permanent?
The roots of the revolution date back at least to the 1980 election, and to three factors that shaped the Reagan presidency: the rise of terrorism against Americans, the declining power of the Arab oil weapon, and the strong pro-Israel feelings of Ronald Reagan himself. These factors combined to produce a change in attitudes -- one that is as much anti-Arab as it is pro-Israeli.
Israel and AIPAC, to be sure, did their best to influence American policy. They pushed hard through the 1970s for more American aid, weapons and diplomatic support for Israel. Their basic orientation in those days was defensive, an effort to keep the U.S. from succumbing to Arab oil pressure. They had a simple theory about American support for Israel -- more is better -- but no detailed plan about where the relationship was heading.
Then one day, sometime in the mid-1980s, Israel and AIPAC realized that there had been a change. They were pushing against a door that was already open. Israel and AIPAC went running through that open door, but still with no long-range plan other than the old "more-is-better" philosophy. In fact, the change in American policy was probably as much of a surprise to the pro-Israel camp as it was to the Arabs.
The implications of this revolution in U.S.-Israeli relations are, at this point, difficult to assess. Will it enhance Israeli security over the long run? Will it encourage Arab moderation and recognition of Israel? Or will it instead inflame radical sentiment in the Middle East? These questions, unanswerable for the moment, are likely to preoccupy thoughtful Israelis, Arabs and Americans in coming years.
Many Israelis, for now, seem unaware that the revolution has occurred. Take, or example, the growing military relationship between the two countries. Israelis remember the old days, when the U.S. military services kept the Israelis at arm's length, and regard their new access to the Pentagon as a perhaps-temporary opening, rather than the fruits of a fundamental shift in the relationship.
Israel's approach toward the U.S., contrary to mythology, has always tended to be ad-hoc and ill-planned. When it encountered problems with successive administrations, Israel adopted a diplomatic full-court press. Every arms sale to the Arabs was described in apocalyptic terms; every negotiation with the U.S. was a wrenching affair, with the Israelis arguing over every dotted "i" and crossed "t." Even today, with the Arab opposition dispersed and dispirited there still is no plan -- other than more is better.
Even if the Israeli government had devised a precise plan to tranform American Mideast policy, it couldn't have executed it. U.S. policy is not made in Jerusalem, nor at the Israeli Embassy in Washington. It is true the Israelis can threaten to undermine American policy if Washington is perceived to be endangering their basic interests. And Israel is effective in getting its views across on matters of interest to the Jewish state. But this is not the stuff of which revolutions are made.
AIPAC has considerably more power to influence American policy. It is a major Washington player, one with the skill and political clout of the American Jewish community behind it. But AIPAC, for all its evident lobbying and political skills, has its built-in limitations as well. It is a relatively small organization whose influence derives from the numerically small American Jewish population. Its clout is in the Congress, not the executive branch where, after all, U.S. Middle East policy is still devised and implemented. And it is there -- in the executive branch -- where the real transformation has taken place.
AIPAC's founder, I.L. Kenen, once defined his organization's role this way: "It is our job to lobby the Congress to tell the president to overrule the State Department." But what happens when the State Department doesn't need to be overruled? This unforeseen problem arises with the new arms sale. AIPAC doesn't oppose the State Department this time; Congress does.
Pro-Israel sentiment on Capitol Hill seems to have taken on a life of its own, independent of the wishes of AIPAC or Israel itself. The Saudi arms sale is the most obvious example. Since AIPAC dropped out of the fight, 12 additional senators have lined up in opposition. All 11 leading House opponents have reaffirmed their intention to fight the sale.
What motivates the Congress in large part is undisguised hostility toward the Arabs in general and Saudi Arabia in particular. The leading Senate opponent, Sen. Alan Cranston (D-Calif.), argues that the Saudis have never supported the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty nor the peace initiative of King Hussein. He also appeals to the public concern about terrorism by noting that the Saudis have provided subsidies to the Syrians and the PLO, both of which are linked to terrorist activities.
What's surprising is that Congressional rhetoric about the Arabs is echoed at the very highest levels of the Reagan administration. Said one senior White House official a few months ago, "I believe in strategic cooperation with both Israel and Saudi Arabia. We get it from Israel, but not Saudi Arabia." And despite the administration support for the Saudi sale, so far it has been mainly pro forma. The White House has yet to give the matter its top priority.
Administration officials often blame Congress for sabotaging U.S. Mideast policy, but the fact is that administration decisions have helped create the now-insurmountable Congressional opposition. These same administration officials have consistently downgraded the importance of the Arab world and boosted reliance on Israel.
The revolution really got under way in 1980. The first major factor was terrorism. Prior to the 1979-1980 Iranian hostage crisis, terrorism to most Americans was an Arab-Israeli affair. Occassionally U.S. citizens or diplomats got caught in the crossfire. But it was incidents like the massacre of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics and the 1976 Entebbe raid that dominated the headlines and epitomized the issue for most Americans.
Until Tehran. Suddenly America was "held hostage." One immediate by-product was that Jimmy Carter was discredited and Ronald Reagan catapulted into the presidency. And soon after the inauguration, the new secretary of state, Alexander Haig, declared that combatting terrorism would be to the Reagan Administration what human rights had been for its predecessor.
In this new war against terrorism, the battle-hardened Israelis could offer some practical advice. Even today Israelis insist that the Mossad -- Israel's CIA -- provides crucial assistance. That may be true. But so do a score of other intelligence services of friendly countries. And when the U.S. devotes its enormous resources to fighting terrorism -- as we have seen in the recent effort to track Libyan-sponsored acts -- it doesn't need much help from anyone.
More important than the limited resources the Israelis offered was the aura they projected -- like at Entebbe -- as men of action. This macho image not only appealed to the American public, but also influenced top U.S. officials like the president, the secretary of state and CIA Director William Casey. And if the Israelis were now the good guys, it only followed that their enemies -- radical Moslems -- were the bad guys.
If this wasn't bad enough for the Arabs, 1980 also marked the beginning of the end of their oil clout. Throughout the 1970s, the threat of the Arab oil weapon had offset the traditional ties between the U.S. and Israel. Once the oil weapon was unleashed in 1973, it served as a counterweight insuring that Arab needs and interests would be addressed in Washington. Even as late as December 1980, U.S. Ambassador to Saudi Arabia John West could attract attention by warning that if the Saudis did not receive bomb racks for their F-15s, they would cut their oil production in half.
Yet by 1981 Ronald Reagan, fresh from his historic tax cut and budget victories and twisting every arm in sight, could barely gain Senate approval for a follow-up sale of AWACS radar planes to the Saudis. In the House of Representatives, the administration was defeated by a nearly 3-1 margin. It was to be the last time the Reagan administration even attempted to wage a fight on behalf of a major Arab arms sale.
The waning influence of Arab oil power also allowed the emergence of a third powerful force -- the personal views of Ronald Reagan. Even the president's harshest critics in the liberal Jewish community acknowledge he is the most viscerally pro-Israel president since the founding of the state.
And the Begin government in Israel gave him ample opportunity to prove his faith by undertaking a series of controversial actions soon after he assumed office. First, in June 1981, Begin ordered the destruction of Iraq's nuclear reactor. Six months later the Begin government extended Israeli law to the occupied Golan Heights, in effect, annexing it. Neither act undermined Reagan's belief in Israel as the one dependable ally in the region.
The ultimate provocation came in June 1982 when Begin and Defense Minister Ariel Sharon launched a full-scale invasion of Lebanon. Although the administration was prepared to acquiesce in a limited Israeli incursion, they were stunned and dismayed when Israeli forces continued all the way to the gates of Beirut.
For the first time the Israelis were beseiging an Arab capital. And Ronald Reagan was appalled by what he saw on the evening news. After a few nights of witnessing the Israelis bomb and shell Beirut, he had enough. Calling together his Middle East advisors in the Oval Office, he demanded an end to the Israeli attacks. "Do whatever is necessary," he said. Then the President reverted to form. "Because," he reminded the group, "Once we get this matter cleaned up we can get on with our natural relationship (whereby) Israel protects the oilfields and our interests throughout the region."
Among those witnessing this extraordinary scene was the new secretary of state, George Shultz. Shultz, unlike the President, believed U.S. interests in the region required Israel to come to terms with Palestinian nationalism and ultimately make major territorial concessions in the West Bank.
Shultz wasted little time putting a new imprint on U.S. Middle East policy. Appalled former Haig aides dutifully drafted his Senate confirmation testimony, complaining all the while that their new boss was "obsessed" with the Palestinian issue. But his was nothing compared to the shock the Begin government received when it was informed that under Shultz's leadership, the administration had crafted a major new peace initiative, which was announced Sept. 1, 1982.
The Reagan peace plan soon became entangled with continuing efforts to resolve the Lebanon War. The collapse of both efforts is a long and complicated story. But what was crucial in the context of U.S.-Israel relations was that George Shultz did not fault Israel. Instead he blamed the Arabs.
According to a number of State Department officials who worked closely with Shultz at the time, the Secretary emerged from the Lebanon and Reagan plan debacles feeling betrayed by the moderate Arabs, notably the Saudis, and humiliated by the radicals, namely Syria.
"Somewhere between January and May 1984 Shultz underwent a complete transformation," recalls one State Department official. "In so doing, Shultz became the first senior administration official while in office to shift away from the Arabs and towards Israel and not the other way around." The revolution was complete.
If the revolution is over, the one remaining question is whether it is irreversible. What will happen in a new Administration, say one headed by George Bush? Bush is known to share many of George Shultz's original Middle East views. According to the vice president's national security adviser, Donald Gregg, Bush does not have the same "gut feelings (towards Israel) as the president, not to mention Jack Kemp."
But "gut" feelings aside, by 1989 the revolution will be nine years old. By then, the Gulf War too will probably be in its ninth year. Israel will have occupied the West Bank for 23 years. The U.S. battle against terrorism, as the president suggested last week, may well have expanded to include Syria and Iran. And oil prices by all accounts will still be depressed.
By then AIPAC may have to be called upon to assist in arms sales to Arab moderates -- if there are any left.
Richard B. Straus is editor of Middle East Policy Survey. Previously he was a congressional aide and, from 1977 to 1979, a staff member of AIPAC.