The Folly of Linkage
The theory of linkage holds that by resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict most other problems will be resolved. The end of the Arab-Israeli will contribute to the fight against terrorism as well as improve the prospects for Arab democracy and women’s rights. The conflict, linkage advocates argue, is a “lightning rod” for the recruitment of new al Qaeda terrorists in Iraq and Afghanistan, not to mention a handy propaganda foil for Iran to distract us from its pursuit of nuclear weapons.
And after the recent revelation of secret State Department cables by WikiLeaks, the linkage debate has been revived. Detractors are emboldened by evidence that shows Arab statesmen mortally terrified by the prospect of atomic Iranian mullahs. “Cut off the head of the snake,” said the Saudi king Abdullah to his American interlocutors. Beware of the “Iranian tentacles,” warned Jordanian officials, who added that the Obama administration’s policy of engagement would fail because Iran’s favorite tactic was waiting out the clock with negotiations. The United Arab Emirates’s foreign minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan sounded more hawkish than his Israeli counterpart in terming the Islamic Republic an “existential threat” and suggesting a U.S. ground invasion if aerial bombardment failed. Abu Dhabi crown prince Muhamad bin Zayed said “Ahmadinejad is Hitler.” Indeed, a wide swath of Arab government opinion seemed united in recommending a preemptive American strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities.
Proponents of linkage counter that the cables do nothing to reject Arab leaders’ preoccupation with Palestinian nationalism. At an April 2009 meeting that took place at the U.S. embassy in Amman, for instance, “Jordanian officials argue[d] that the best way to counter Iran's ambitions is to weaken the salience of its radicalism on the Arab street by fulfilling the promise of a ‘two-state solution.’” Similarly, when Senator John Kerry, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, met with the Emir of Qatar in February 2010 and queried him as to how to improve America’s standing in the Middle East, the Emir replied by saying that “first and foremost the U.S. must do everything in its power to find a lasting solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the best way to begin is by moving first on the Syrian track,” a comment that no doubt flattered Kerry who has been a strong advocate of the United States’ reengagement with Syria.
Although almost every cable that mentioned the Arab-Israeli conflict did so in the wider and more urgent context of forestalling Iranian hegemony, this does not refute the linkage theory by itself. Where linkage plainly fails as an interpretive mechanism is in its weighing of Arab motives for making Palestine the Key to All Mythologies for regional harmony. It’s not just the Iranians who have exploited this perennial cause for self-aggrandizement or distraction from their own internal turmoil. Some of the very Arab regimes now stumping for “peace” have benefited greatly by the prolongation of the Arab-Israeli conflict. The unintended consequence of linkage is to reaffirm one of the oldest games in the Middle East –forestalling actual Palestinian statehood by deferring to those who only insist upon it rhetorically.
To understand how Palestinian nationalism has been a historic cat’s paw for Arab autocrats, one need only consider the origins of today’s internationally recognized “sole representative of the Palestinian people” – the Palestine Liberation Organization. Conventional wisdom maintains that this former byword for armed “resistance” renounced decades of bloodshed for diplomacy at the 1991 Madrid Conference, whereupon it recognized Israel’s right to exist and took the first tentative steps down toward the Oslo Accords.
However, left out of this cozy narrative is why the PLO was first founded in 1964. The brainchild of Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser, the organization was actually conceived as a way of inhibiting terrorist activity by giving the Palestinian cause an outlet different from Yasir Arafat’s Fatah movement. Fatah had been founded eight years earlier by Palestinian students living in Kuwait and had made a name for itself through its vigorous and violent activities. The PLO was thus created as an extension of Egyptian foreign policy, not as a genuine liberation movement.