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Why do Arab governments—and the U.S.—insist the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is at the heart of all the Mideast’s problems?

Lee Smith
May 05, 2010
Peter O'Toole in Lawrence of Arabia.(Wikimedia Commons)
Peter O'Toole in Lawrence of Arabia.(Wikimedia Commons)

The one uncontroversial fact about the Middle East is that the Arab-Israeli conflict is inextricably linked to every other problem in the region. Known as “linkage,” this is the one idea that has won the support of a broad consensus of U.S. congressmen, senators, diplomats, former presidents, and their foreign-policy advisers, seconded by journalists, Washington policy analysts, almost every American who has ever watched a Sunday morning news roundtable, and the Obama Administration, from National Security Adviser James Jones to the president himself: “If we can solve the Israeli-Palestinian process,” candidate Obama said on Meet the Press in the spring of 2008, “then that will make it easier for Arab states and the Gulf states to support us when it comes to issues like Iraq and Afghanistan. It will also weaken Iran, which has been using Hamas and Hezbollah as a way to stir up mischief in the region.”

It is hardly surprising, then, that commanders of U.S. armed forces who during the last decade have spent more time on the ground among Arab and Muslim populations than American diplomats also subscribe to the concept of linkage and have even made it into a tenet of U.S. military strategy. For instance, in his testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee in March, CENTCOM commander Gen. David Petraeus explained that, “The enduring hostilities between Israel and some of its neighbors present distinct challenges to our ability to advance our interests” in the region.

Petraeus’s comments were used by some to advance the linkage-based argument that Israeli actions were endangering U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. Petraeus himself has clarified his remarks, and last week Defense Secretary Robert Gates jumped into the fray to explain that, “Petraeus did not say that the lack of progress in the peace process is costing American lives.” According to Gates, the issue is that:

The lack of progress in the peace process has provided political ammunition to our adversaries in the Middle East and in the region, and that progress in this arena will enable us not only to perhaps get others to support the peace process, but also support us in our efforts to try and impose effective sanctions against Iran.

Gates and Petraeus, then, are adherents of what might be called “soft” linkage. This is the idea that since, in Petraeus’s words, “The conflict foments anti-American sentiment, due to a perception of U.S. favoritism for Israel,” it’s the work of U.S. policymakers to keep working on the peace process that will lead to a Palestinian state in order to show U.S. good faith to the Arabs. The soft linkers don’t believe that all the regional problems will melt away with a resolution to the conflict, but progress on the peace process will render regional U.S. allies more willing to cooperate on matters of U.S. national interest. Robert Malley is a soft linker, so are Aaron David Miller and Dennis Ross and almost everyone else who has ever worked on the peace process in a U.S. presidential administration.

And then there are the apostles of “hard” linkage, most of whom do not like Israel and believe, like John J. Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, that popular anger over the Palestinian issue actually motivates the policymaking decisions of Arab rulers. As preposterous as it may seem—that hard security regimes like Saudi Arabia and Egypt really care that much about popular opinion—there are plenty of moderate Arab leaders who keep feeding ammunition to the hard linkers. For instance, King Abdullah of Jordan is the latest in a long line of Hashemite leaders who warns that failure to resolve the Palestinian-Israeli crisis endangers moderate rulers like himself. The difference between Abdullah and the hard linkers of the U.S. policy establishment is that the latter want Washington to sever its relationship with Jerusalem, while the Jordanian king knows quite well that a weakened Israel, less capable of stopping Palestinian militants on his border, could bring his regime down.

Having written a book that describes the Middle East in terms of a clash of Arab civilizations, I give no credence to the notion that the Arab-Israeli arena is the region’s defining issue. Rather, it is one among many conflicts that plague this conflict-prone area, and so I see the Arabic-speaking regions in terms of intra-Arab clashes, or an Arab cold war, where regional actors—not just nation states, but also regimes and their domestic rivals, in addition to competing sectarian groups—are warring with each other at varying levels of intensity. There is the Palestinian civil war between Hamas and Fatah that has cooled for the time being; in Lebanon, Hezbollah has routed the pro-democracy March 14 forces; the Houthi rebellion taking place on the Saudi-Yemen border is effectively a proxy war between the Saudis and the Iranians; in Syria, the ruling Alawite minority simultaneously fears the country’s Sunni majority even as it uses Sunni militants to advance its interests in Iraq, Lebanon, Israel, and the Palestinian territories; and in Iraq, Sunnis and Shia seem to be poised for a continuation of the civil war that will ensue after the U.S. withdrawal. That’s the real Middle East, where the Arabs’ fight for power among themselves takes priority over whether or not Washington negotiators have the percentages right in proffered land swaps between Israel and the Palestinians.

Nonetheless, I can hardly help but recognize the central role that U.S. Middle East policy has given to the belief that, from the Persian Gulf all the way to Western North Africa, a region encompassing many thousands of tribes and clans, dozens of languages and dialects, ethnicities and religious confessions, the Arab-Israeli issue is the key factor in determining the happiness of over 300 million Arabs and an additional 1.3 billion Muslims outside of the Arabic-speaking regions. Where does such an extraordinary idea come from? The answer is the Arabs—who might be expected, in the U.S. view of the world, to give us an honest account of what is bothering them. However, this would ignore the fact that interested parties do not always disclose the entire truth of their situation, especially when they have a stake in doing otherwise.

In all relations, intimate as well as international, the goal is to convince the other side to see the world in the way that you have chosen for them to see it. As Zionist immigration started to pick up in the 1920s and 1930s, long before the United States was even a factor in the Middle East, Arab rulers explained to the British that the creation of a Jewish state would cause deep anger among the Islamic umma, or community. The notion that all Muslims could feel strongly about one particular issue that did not touch on them directly was not necessarily false, but neither was it invariably true. Religious affiliation is only one form of identity in the region, where tribal and clan loyalty often trump everything else: It tests credulity that, say, the Saud clan of the Nejd on the Arabian peninsula was more concerned with protecting wealthy Jerusalem families than with defeating its own local adversaries, such as the Hashemites.

Linkage is the narrative the Arab rulers—specially Ibn Saud, the Hashemites who ruled Iraq and Transjordan, and the Egyptian monarchy—used to compete with each other to represent the Palestinian file to the British, a privilege that would enhance the winner’s power and prestige at the expense of his rivals. If the Saudis, say, owned the right to speak for the Arabs of the Palestinian mandate, then the British would have to go through the Saudi king to win concessions, a path that the British would need to pave with gold and concessions of their own to the Saudis. The competition for the role was stiff.

In the 1920s, ‘30s, and ‘40s, many of the British Foreign Office’s bureaucrats were, following in the footsteps of T.E. Lawrence, obsessed with the notion of a great and unified Arab nation. But even as the Foreign Office’s advice to Whitehall was largely based on sentimental, or irrational, grounds, London was not entirely foggy-headed. Recognizing that war with Germany was on the horizon, the Brits did not wish to risk their position in the Levant or energy sources in the Gulf by pushing the Arabs over to the Nazis. After the war, with the Brits losing their holdings and discovering that they were incapable of continuing to balance the Jews and the Arabs, the American moment in the Middle East began in earnest. The U.S. Department of State inherited the Foreign Office’s Arab nationalist inclinations and with it the idea of linkage. President Harry S. Truman’s Secretary of State Gen. George Marshall was the first in a long line of American military men reaching up to the present who subscribed to the idea that U.S. support for the Zionist state would antagonize the world’s Muslim population. Marshall was a proponent of hard linkage who not only warned the president against recognizing Israel, but also threatened to vote against him if he did so.

So, how did Washington manage to navigate these dangerous shoals, balancing not only the Arabs and Israel, but also a large segment of its own foreign-policy establishment that was suspicious, if not downright hostile, to the Jewish state? An even neater stunt than convincing the other side to accept your perspective is to turn their idols upside down—that is, to take their worldview and use it against them. This is exactly the trick that Washington accomplished in the wake of the 1973 Arab-Israeli war and the energy crisis. Henry Kissinger’s State Department began exploiting the Arab narrative for the United States’ own benefit: The United States told the Arabs that it, too, believed in linkage, and that if they wanted anything from Israel, they’d have to come through the United States to get it. The Arabs were happy to go along for the ride, especially the Saudis, who wanted to avoid a repeat of the oil embargo that OPEC imposed on the United States for siding with Israel.

Those who say they see through the myth of linkage note that the Palestinian issue can’t be that important because in fact the Arabs don’t really care about the Palestinians and just use them as a political football for their own benefit. That’s both true and not true, but what’s more instructive is that the Palestinians have caused a lot of trouble in the region for their Arab brethren. Palestinian refugees started civil wars in Jordan and Lebanon and sided with Iraq when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. If, like me, you see the region in terms of an Arab civil war, then these Palestinian uprisings are simply evidence of how one group has fought its rivals for power. But if you see the Middle East in terms of linkage, you would argue this proves your circular logic: If the Palestinian issue was resolved these wars never would have happened in the first place.

The myth of linkage owes its power in part in part to the nature of the Middle East, where American policy walks a fine line between reason and faith. For instance, the United States supports Israel because Israel is a strategic ally with whom the United States shares liberal democratic values—and because Israel is the national homeland of a people whose line of prophets culminates with the Christian messiah who was resurrected three days after his death. Similarly, the United States dares not dismiss the Arabs’ claim to Jerusalem, a city revered as the third-holiest city in all of (Sunni) Islam because the prophet of Islam’s flying horse touched down there during his night journey to heaven.

As the origins of any myth fade into the past, the myth, paradoxically, becomes more and more powerful, sometimes even taking on the appearance of truth. Two generations removed from the American policymakers who turned linkage to the advantage of U.S. regional interests, a dangerous stage begins in the history of a myth invented by one Arab tribe to gain the support of the British in their battle with another Arab tribe and that Washington turned around to make itself the power center of the Middle East.

Consider this statement taken from Petraeus’s Senate testimony: “Arab anger over the Palestinian question limits the strength and depth of US partnerships with governments and peoples in the AOR [Area of Responsibility] and weakens the legitimacy of moderate regimes in the Arab world.” This is boilerplate material that could have been written for any U.S. official over the last 40 years, and it’s totally uncontroversial, except for the fact that it’s not true and has never been true. Moderate Arab regimes do not enjoy political legitimacy as liberal democracies do; rather, their legitimacy is proportionate to the capacity of their security services to repress domestic opposition, especially of the Islamist variety, and deter intra-Arab enemies. Their legitimacy depends only on their ability to stay in power. Washington’s regional partnerships—with Arab regimes and not with Arab peoples—are to ensure that these regimes do stay at the helm. For example, $2 billion annually of the U.S. taxpayers’ money helps Egypt’s military and security chiefs stay loyal to President Hosni Mubarak, while the Bahrain-based U.S. Fifth Fleet makes sure that oil receipts fill the coffers of the Saudi royal family and the Gulf Arab emirates. In other words, Washington’s Arab allies are not willing to commit suicide over the Palestinian question by telling Washington to stop supporting them.

Indeed, the American position in the Middle East is founded on the idea that Arab regimes are incapable of defending themselves against anyone. Washington made sure these regimes can’t defeat Israel; the United States protected the Saudis from the Soviets and then from Saddam, when the American presence in the desert made the Saudis vulnerable to their own domestic opposition in the form of Osama Bin Laden. What the Saudis want now is to be protected against the Islamic Republic of Iran, but they can’t say that publicly any more than they can explain that the myth of linkage was always more about intra-Arab politics than it was about the fate of the Palestinians.

Nor apparently can the Americans admit that linkage was just a strategic instrument that leveraged the Arab narrative to the advantage of the United States. The further U.S. policymaking gets from the origins of the myth, the more magical and enticing it has become. The myth of linkage has grown to such legendary proportions at this point that it is the extent of the current White House’s Middle East policy. We have no other strategy to stop the Iranian nuclear program but linkage. Movement on the peace process, the Obama Administration believes, will get the Arab regimes to help us with Iran. The problem is that the Arabs will not help us with Iran. They want us to deal with Iran ourselves, but if we keep forcing the issue of linkage they have no choice but to go along with the ruse that everything is linked to the Arab-Israeli crisis. After all, it’s their narrative, and they can’t disown it now.

In reality, the reason the Obama Administration, Gates, and Petraeus are pushing linkage into overdrive is that there is no Iran strategy, and nothing—not even linkage—is going to stop the Iranians. They are telling the Arabs that they are going to do what they can about the Palestinian question, because they are not going to do anything about Iran. That’s the Arabs’ consolation prize for being an American ally. What a cruel joke fate has played at the expense of Arabs, who have been talking out of both sides of their mouth about the Palestinians and linkage for almost a century, a myth that came to link the fate of the Americans to that of the Arabs, and theirs to ours. Since we have no other policy than a magic trick, the Arabs have no choice but to pretend to believe it’s real.

Lee Smith is the author of The Consequences of Syria.