When the American Jewish community rose up angrily this month to force President Carter into at least a tactical retreat in his Mideast policy, one group watched the spectacle with a familar sense of frustration - the small band of Arab-Americans and others who comprise what passes for an "Arab lobby" in Washington.
At one point in the furor caused by the Soviet-American joint statement on a Middle East peace conference, a group called the National Association of Arab American (NAAA) decided to place an advertisement in The Washington Post announcing its support for President Carter.
But before the ad could run, the President stepped back from the Soviet-American statement, responding in part to the outcry it provoked from American Jews. The NAAA hestitated about publishing its ad.
A member of the group's executive board talked to one of the President's associates in the White House, and asked if Carter would appreciate a public statement of support from Arab-Americans. The White House aide was horrified, according to Professor Hisham Sharabi of Georgetown University, one of the founders of NAAA. The White House would prefer an NAAA statement attacking the President, the aide said - not really in jest. The advertisement was never published.
The fact that public pro-Arab support would be seen as something of a curse at the White House suggests the difficulties of lobbying for the Arabs - or against the Israelis - in Washington. Members of this group speak repeatedly of their own significance. "There is no such thing as an Arab lobby," according to Hatem I. Hussaini, a Palestinian who runs the Washington branch of the Arab Leaque's information office.
This is an exaggeration. There are several groups lobbying for Arab interests in Washington, including the Arab countries' ambassador, a few highly paid Washington lawyers, Hussaini's information office and several Arab-American groups.
But in practical terms his disclaimer is difficult to challenge. Especially by comparison to the many groups and individuals - many well-financed - that support Israeli interests here, the Arabs and their friends appear to be the political equivalent of Charles Atlas's 98-pound-weakling.
Which does not mean they are helpless. They have one omnipresent (if ethereal) ally of great strength - the memory here of the 1973 Arab oil embargo.
Until 1973 the Arabs friends bad trouble making the argument that the United States had practical interests in putting more distance between itself and Israel. Now, what might be called the OPEC factor has made that argument more plausible to many Americans.
In 1973 both Saudi Arabia and the American oil companies that then exploited its oil fields jumped into the domestic American debate on the Mideast with a direct show of strength. King Faisal (a Senate committee later revealed instructed the oil companies to use their influence in the United States to force American policy away from Israel and more toward the Arab side. In various ways - newspaper advertisements, letters to stockholders, visits to Washington officials - the oil companies did as Faisal wished.
This attempt at influencing policy provoked outrage from American friends of Israel, and from the Senate Subcommittee on Multinational Corporations, which exposed what happened. In recent years the oil lobby has avoided public participation in the Mideast debate. But the OPEC factor remains important. OPEC is the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries.)
The Arabs, Arab Americans and other who try to promote a change in American Mideast policy tend to dismiss the oil companies as more courageous allies in private than in public. This group professes to be more impressed by the strength of the Israeli lobby.
Israel's friends are numerous, well-organized and effective. America's 6 million Jews represent a powerful bloc of votes, real or prospective. Successive American administrations have stood behind Israeli governments since 1948, when the Jewish state was founded with the apparent support of the American public opinion.
But neither the persistence nor the strength of American support for Israel convinces Arab-American activists and other friends of the Arab world that U.S. policy is correct or just. Talking to them about the Mideast is like watching a familiar event through the wrong end of a pair of binoculars.
For Professor Sharabi of Georgetown, an American citizen of Palestinian descent. U.S. policy is a source of "moral outrage." He lambasts "the total, cynical indifference to real human rights and national rights" in the Middle East.
According to Seth Tillman, a former aide to former Sen. J. W. Fulbright (D-Ark.) and now a fellow of the American Enterprise Institute, the United States must particulate differences between American and Israeli national interest, instead of regarding them as essentially identical.
"There is a very drastic lack of advocacy of the [U.S.] national interests." Tillman said in an interview.
According to Sen. James Abourezk (D.S.D.) the only member of the Senate who actively speaks out on the Arab side of Mideast issues, there is an issue of fair play.
"I guess its just offended my sense of justice," Abourezk said in an interview, describing the prevasiveness of pro-Israeli sentiment in Washington.
Friends of Israel obviously believe that American support for the Jewish state is logical, moral and good politics, but friends of the Arab world see it differently. Some radical pro-Arabs speak darkly of Zionist conspiracies. A more common view among Arab-American activists and other pro-Arab elements operating publicly in Washington is that U.S. policy is the product of inertia, emotion, cultural and racial bias and domestic politics.
Some get angry at the so-called Jewish lobby. One who does is Abourezk. "The Israeli lobby is intimidating," he says. "If you get on their hit list you spend a lot of time defending yourself," from what he terms "intellectual terrorism."
In 1974, Abourezk recounted, the then-Chairman of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, an effective element of the Israeli lobby, wrote a letter to contributors to his 1972 Senate campaign - contributors, according to Abourezk, with Jewish surnames.
The letter, signed by I.L. (Si) Kenen, noted that Abourezk had given assurances in 1972 that he would take a fair position on Mideast issues, "which I and many of my friends welcomed." kenen wrote, "particularly in the light of his Lebanese ancestry." (One contributor sent Abourezk a copy of the letter.)
"I regret, however," Kenen's letter went on, "that in the last year Sen. Abourezk has gone to great lengths to support the Arab cause and to undermine American friendship for Israel . . . I consider the question important enough to write to you and others who supported Abourezk . . ."
Abourezk and others interviewed for this article claimed that the Israeli lobby has enormous advantages, particularly on Capitol Hill, where it has many friends. Tillman, Fulbrigt's fromer aide, noted a quotation in Stephen D. Isaac's book. "Jews in American Politics," from Morris Amitay, the new chairman of AIPAC:
"There are now a lot of guys at the working level up here." Amitay told Isaacs, describing Capitol Hill where be then worked, "who happen to be Jewish, who are willing to make a little bit of extra effort and to look at certain issues in terms of their Jewishness, and that is what had made this thing go very effectively in the last couple of years. These are all guys who are in position to make the decisions in these areas for these senators. You don't need that many to get something done in the Senate . . ."
By contrast, Arab Americans contend that their ethnic group is still weak and disorganized. Many Arab Americans fel no sense of ethnic identity, Dr. Hussaini noted - "Ralph Nader never said anything about the Middle East; Danny Thomas never said anything about the Middle East." (Both are of Arab ancestry).
There are 2 million or more Arab Americans and the National Association of Arab Americans hopes to become a spokesman for them. The group will soon register as a lobbyist, according to its new director of public affairs John P. Richardson, and is hoping to operate during the coming year with a budget of $250,000 and a staff of half a dozen, a substantal increase over the recent past.
Just as the 1967 Six-Day War mobilized Jewish sentiment and Israeli nationalism in Jewish communities all over the world, the 1973 Yom Kippur War and subsequent events stimulated Arab and subsequent events stimulated Arab Americans' self awareness and pride, according to many of them. The encouragement provided when "Arab power came fully on the stage" with the oil embargo helped make it possible to get the NAAA off the ground, according to Sharabi, one of its founders.
Sharabi thinks an effective NAAA public affairs program could make a big difference in the political debate here on Mideast issues. The Israeli lobby has never really had significant opposition he argues - "the absence of a counterforce is absoultely crucial" to the Israeli lobby's success.
his optimism is not universally shared. Tillman at the American Enterprise Institute argues that only a President can redefine American interests in a way that separates them from the Israelis' lobby's definition of Israeli interests. "I really feel, down in my bones, that were going to have to have a major confrontation with this [Israeli] lobby and its supporters in Congress," Tillman said - and he feels only a President could effectively lead such a confrontation has always alarmed the Arab countries and their friends here. Despite their vast new oil riches, the Arabs have not tried to take on Israel in the court of the American public opinion. Saudi Arabia paid the New York public relations firm of Doreinus & Co. $328.500 to devise a massive public relations campaign, according to filings with the Justice Department. But a spokesman for the Saudi information office in Washington said no decision has been made in Riyadh about implementing that plan or undertaking any other large scale public information effort in this country.
Abourezk says he has repeatedly urged the Arab states to do something to make their case more effectively here.
"The [Arab] embassies here do a wretched job," Tillman said. "They reinforce their own worst image by giving lavish parties for the elite." He excepted only Egypt and Jordan from that generalization.
Image is a factor that seem to haunt conversations with Arab Americans and other Arab supporters here Michael W. Suleiman a professor at Kansas State University, has tried to study American press coverage of the Middle East and the attitude of high school teachers toward Israel and the Arabs. Both show a persistent anti-Arab bias, he contends.
Stereotype images of sheiks and their harems, fat and ugly Arabs, dirty nomads on camels and the like remain common, according to Sluciman and others. "People seem to think somehow that Arabs are fair game," Suleiman said in an interview - "the only safe group to hate in the United States."