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The Folly of Linkage

4:50 PM, Dec 16, 2010 • By MICHAEL WEISS
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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. 

The Folly of Linkage

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. 

Regional power politics also mattered. By 1965, Fatah had been co-opted by the Syrian military intelligence apparatus, which was increasingly under the sway of the Syria’s Ba’ath Party. Damascus wanted to control its own front organization that could take credit for attacks against Israeli targets that actually originated in Lebanon or Jordan. The Syrian military would train and recruit Fatah agents whilst Damascus Radio would broadcast tales of their exploits over the airwaves, shaming Nasser’s toothless PLO. Syria hoped to put Jordan and Lebanon in a double bind: if they retaliated against Fatah, then they would forfeit their claim to the Palestinian cause, leaving Syria as its sole defender. If they failed to retaliate, they would be pummeled by a vengeful Israel—forcing Egypt, which claimed to the Arab world’s leader, to defend Jordan and Lebanon militarily. 

As the British historian David Gilmour has written: “At that time the PLO was not designed to do much about liberating Palestine. Its role was to shout a bit about solidarity and so on, but not to do any actual fighting. Its purpose was to contain rather than express Palestinian nationalism, to act as an outlet for Palestinian frustration--not to be an effective military organization might drag the Arab states into a war with Israel.” 

Syria, by its own provocations in underwriting Palestinian terrorism, became the pace-setter for the disastrous Six-Day War. The first armed operation by the Fatah-Syrian alignment was on New Year’s Eve, 1965. Known as Fatah’s Military Communique No. 1., it was an abortive attack on Israel’s National Water Carrier (the assailants were caught by the Israelis before they could cross the border from Lebanon). The act was condemned by Egypt, Lebanon and Jordan but was praised fulsomely by Syria, which had orchestrated it. For Nasser, the only recourse—short of forfeiting his regional authority—was to transform the PLO into a terrorist organization, which he did beginning in 1965-1966, using Egyptian-controlled Gaza as a base of operations.

The Six-Day War that erupted in June 1967 and resulted in Israel’s legendary defeat of three conventional armies (Egypt, Jordan, and Syria) proved to be a devastating obituary for Nasser’s pan-Arab nationalism and all other regional political designs save one: the restoration of Palestine. As British journalist and chronicler of the Palestinian refugees Rosemary Sayigh has written: “For the [Arab] regimes, the Resistance Movement (which they had tried to suppress before 1967) now had a specific usefulness, in diverting public opinion from defeat, and giving it new hope.” 

The following year, 1968, Arafat did two things that further decided the course of inter-Arab politics for a decade. The first was that he relocated his headquarters from Damascus to Amman, from where he unsuccessfully attempted to establish a foothold. The second thing he did was join the PLO in a bid to free his Fatah movement from being owned by Syria. The PLO was rebranded a “confederation” of various groups but in actuality became just another armed wing of Fatah, with Arafat serving as chairman of the executive committee of the Palestine National Council, the PLO’s legislative body. Also enlisted in the PLO’s ranks were younger, smaller terrorist organizations, such as George Habash’s Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), which had been backed by Iraq, and Nayef Hawatmeh’s breakaway faction, the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP).  

Interestingly, given today’s conventional wisdom of seeing all roads to peace leading through Jerusalem, the slogans of both the PFLP and DFLP in the late 1960s was: “The road to Tel Aviv lies through Amman.” Habash and Hawatmeh wanted to ignite a revolution in their host country that would spread throughout the Arab world and their preferred kindling was a series of terrorist “spectaculars.” The most notable of these was the September 1970 hijacking of four international civilian aircraft, three of which were brought to a desert airstrip in Jordan where their passengers were offloaded and the planes themselves blown up. One of these was a Pan American 747, which led to immediate pressure on Jordan by the U.S. to bring Palestinian terrorism to heel.

King Hussein was thus faced with a stark choice: fight the PLO or lose his kingdom. He chose to fight. In September 1970, Jordan declared war on Palestinian terrorists, an event later known to Palestinians as “Black September.” Only Syria among all Arab governments—including Iraq, which had given succor to the PFLP—offered any aid to the PLO.  And even that aid was stinting and bet-hedging. While Damascus dispatched over a hundred tanks to combat the Jordanians, the Syrian Air Force crucially provided no air cover for those tanks, resulting in a crushing defeat by Jordan’s combined ground and air forces. The Syrian head of the Air Force who withheld this vital support—he was also the Syrian Minister of Defense—was Hafez al-Assad. Thanks to this shrewd and cynical calculation, Assad was able to push himself to the top of the pile of Syria’s squabbling elite, seizing power two months later in a coup. 

In the end, King Hussein manage to expel the PLO from Jordan. The PLO found safe haven in Lebanon where a critically wounded Fatah, perhaps taking a leaf from the Arab playbook of plausible deniability, founded its own front group in the form of the Black September Organization, later responsible for some of the most notorious terrorist attacks of the twentieth century. These included the assassination of the Jordanian prime minister in Cairo on the steps of the Sheraton Hotel in 1971; the hostage-taking and murder of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics; and the takeover of the Saudi embassy in Khartoum in 1973, which resulted in the deaths of three of the Saudi ambassador’s diplomatic guests.

If ever there were an event that perfectly encapsulated the hypocrisy of Arab regimes that publicly parade their allegiance to Palestine while privately ruing meddlesome Palestinians, it was the Rabat Conference in October 1974, following Israel’s near-defeat in the Yom Kippur War a year earlier. Although Israel had been humbled in the war, Arab regimes still needed an insurance policy for once again being forced into a cease-fire with the Jewish state. That insurance policy, once more, was the Palestinian cause. It was at Rabat that the PLO was formally recognized as the “sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people”—recognized by the very regimes that had either fought the PLO or been humiliated by it. In attendance were King Hussein, who had destroyed the PLO’s base of operations in Jordan; Hafez al-Assad, who had ensured its defeat with King Hussein by not sending air cover; Anwar Sadat, successor to Nasser as president of Egypt and already on a path toward abandoning the Palestinians by making an historic peace with Israel; representatives from Iraq, which had encouraged PLO spectaculars but which were busy with crushing their Kurdish minority; Saudi Arabia and Sudan, both of which were attacked by the PLO in Khartoum.  By November 1974, Arafat delivered his infamous “gun and olive branch” speech and, minus only a delegation of Israel and a seated delegation of the United States, was received with a standing ovation at the UN General Assembly in New York. 

The PLO’s Arab supporters soon found another reason to fight it. After the start of the Lebanese civil war in 1975, the PLO took the side of Sunni Muslim and leftist groups fighting against the Maronite Christians. Syria invaded Lebanon to support the Maronites. The Syrian intervention had Arab support and some Arab troops. The document, concocted in two separate summits in Riyadh and Cairo in 1976, that ratified Syria’s occupation of Lebanon was called: La Force Arabe de Dissuasion. The PLO was the party being dissuaded.

Not content with defeating the PLO in the Lebanese civil war, the Syrians also had a role for the organization that suited Syrian needs. Syria had been defeated by Israel in 1973 and could not afford another fight. At the same time, Syria still wanted to make Israel bleed. The answer was to confine the PLO’s activities to a “buffer zone” between the southern Lebanon and northern Israel. Such a location would mean that the PLO could continue to launch attacks against Israel and that Lebanon would absorb any Israeli retaliation. At the same time, the Syrians made sure to keep their own front with Israel, on the Golan Heights, quiet. 

The PLO’s defeat would come six-years later when Israel attacked to put an end to the organization’s para-state presence in south Lebanon. It is interesting, in light of the supposed predominance of Palestinian nationalism in the minds of Arab leaders, to recall what mainstream Lebanese opinion was toward that concept. I quote from the London Times’s Middle East correspondent in July 1982:

The Palestinian revolution was, it transpired, more important than Lebanese lives. The Palestinians could identify themselves with the leftists of Lebanon’s Muslim community but when this pact was put to the test, the battle for Palestine become somehow more holy – the integrity of the Palestinian cause more precious – than the survival of Lebanon.

The Palestinians – as they now admit – had used schools and hospitals and civilian houses as cover for their anti-aircraft guns once more. The state of Lebanon turned out to be worth less to the Palestinians than the unborn state of Palestine. 

The author of the above paragraphs was none other than Robert Fisk, today as passionate a left-wing proponent of linkage as any Beltway realist who attributes immolated churches in Iraq to ongoing Palestinian statelessness.

The parallels with today are clear. Nothing in the WikiLeaks tranche of stolen cables contradicts longstanding autocratic Arab policy towards the Palestinians. In a 2008 exchange between General David Petraeus and then-Lebanese prime minister Fouad Siniora, the renewed peace process is described as laudable but only as long as it does not “come at the expense of Lebanon.” By this, Siniora meant that the Palestinian Right of Return—whereby all 4.7 million Palestinian “refugees,” many of whom are descendants of exiled Palestinians, are to be reabsorbed into Israel—must not be canceled by a final status agreement. Why? Because this would force Lebanon, which is constitutionally bound by a fragile sectarian power-sharing arrangement, to confer citizenship on its own sizable population of 400,000 Palestinians. As most of these Palestinians are Sunni Muslims, that would change Lebanon’s demography and politics, shifting power away from the Maronite Christians and the Shia Muslims. Out of similar cold-hearted logic, the only Palestinians yet to receive Lebanese citizenship are all Christian. Just to make it clear where Muslim Palestinians stand in Lebanon, in August 2009 the Lebanese parliament voted to open more jobs to Palestinians so that they can now do more than just menial work. Palestinians are still excluded from major Lebanese professions such as the law and medicine. The Palestinians have been in Lebanon for over 60 years.

As for the Qatari Emir’s belief that the road to Tel Aviv runs through Damascus: what he did not disclose in his one-on-one with Sen. Kerry in April 2009 was his own material interest in saying he believes that. By most accounts, Qatar is set to invest some $12 billion in Syria in the next few years and bilateral relations between the two countries have never been better. Assad’s state-controlled newspapers boast of a newly opened Syrian school in Doha, the Qatari capital, while the Amir claims credit for brokering the March 14 alliance that fused Syria’s proxy Hezbollah to another tenuous coalition government in Lebanon in 2008, one led by Saed Hariri, son of the assassinated Lebanese leader Rafik Hariri, whose death, by most accounts, was orchestrated by Hezbollah with Syria’s backing.

In the end, if Palestinian statehood is achieved it will be largely in spite of, not because of, the self-serving efforts of unelected Arab leaders. The starkest testament to this fact was a statement not included in WikiLeaks but written up in the international press. It was delivered by Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas last July in his attempt to explain just how strongly he’d had to cajole a recalcitrant Arab League into approving new direct peace negotiations with Israel. Speaking at the Palestinian embassy in Amman, Abbas told a collection journalists:  “We are unable to confront Israel militarily, and this point was discussed at the Arab League Summit. There I turned to the Arab States and I said: ‘If you want war, and if all of you will fight Israel, we are in favor. But the Palestinians will not fight alone because they don’t have the ability to do it.’”  This caused a minor stir in Israel as proof of the supposedly moderate Abbas’s furtive militant tendency. But understood through the prism of inter-Arab politics, all he was doing was calling the Arab states’ bluff.

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