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The Broken Link: What Peace Won't Fix

About a year ago, I joined a small group of journalists in Beirut for a meeting with Fouad Siniora, then the prime minister of Lebanon. Siniora had held the position since the middle of 2005, when Syria ended its almost three-decade-long military occupation of its much smaller neighbor following the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri—a crime many assume was perpetrated either by Damascus or its allies in the Shiite terrorist group Hezbollah. At the time, the withdrawal was seen as a possible paradigm-changing victory for Lebanon. But if the Lebanese believed that the end of nearly thirty years of subjugation to the Syrian military and intelligence apparatus would put an end to the violent instability that has characterized their country’s politics for so long, they were in for a rude awakening. Syria simply left behind Hezbollah as its placeholder. In the summer of 2006, following incessant Hezbollah rocket attacks on its territory, Israel invaded southern Lebanon and bombed targets in the Hezbollah-controlled southern suburbs of Beirut. The war led to the deaths of some one thousand Lebanese and the destruction of much of the country’s infrastructure.

This was not the end of Hezbollah’s violent meddling in Lebanese politics. Since its inception in the early 1980s, the Party of God—armed and equipped by Syria and Iran—has maintained what is essentially a shadow state in Lebanon’s south. A trip there, like the one I took last year, entails a series of Lebanese army checkpoints—as if one were crossing a border between neighboring countries. While Syria’s withdrawal in 2005 was a symbolic victory for Lebanese sovereignty, Damascus and Tehran have continued to wield power in Lebanon through Hezbollah, their proxy army and a major factor in the rogue states’ bid for regional hegemony. In May 2008, after the Lebanese government attempted to investigate the group’s communications network, which included secret cameras installed in Beirut’s international airport, Hezbollah head Hassan Nasrallah declared the government effort a “declaration of war” and ordered his troops to seize the eastern half of the capital. What followed was a series of armed clashes between the Lebanese army and a foreign-backed militia that brought the country to the brink of civil war. To this day, Hezbollah (and its Syrian and Iranian financers) remains in violation of U.N. Security Council Resolution 1559, which, since its adoption in September of 2004, has called for “all remaining foreign forces to withdraw from Lebanon” as well as for “the disbanding and disarmament of all Lebanese and non-Lebanese militias.”

So one might think that Siniora would have harsh words for the Islamist party and militia whose attempted coup against his government caused Lebanon so much unnecessary death and destruction. But Siniora directed his venom neither at Hezbollah nor its Syrian and Iranian patrons. “Our only enemy up until now is Israel,” he told us in our discussions last year. Echoing the cry that used to be heard only in Arab capitals—but has now become de rigueur in places as far afield as Paris, Moscow, Turtle Bay, and Washington—he said that “the main source of problems in the region is the continuation of the occupation.” Herewith was the clearest explication of what is known in the parlance of Mideast diplomacy as “linkage,” the connection of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute to all manner of conflicts in the region and the greater Muslim world.

 

T o be sure, Israel is, to some degree, a source of Lebanon’s political problems. If Israel did not exist, Hezbollah might not have initiated the destructive war that took the lives of many innocent Lebanese. But this only underscores the underlying problem with the linkage theory, in that it is Israel’s very existence that angers Hezbollah, not the occupation of the West Bank. The creation of a Palestinian state would not put an end to Hezbollah’s attacks on Israel. More importantly, it would hardly put a stop to the group’s destructive role in Lebanon, which has nothing to do with Israel and everything to do with Lebanon’s own fractious confessional politics, the hegemonic impulses of the Iranian mullahs, and the shaky Assad dictatorship in Syria, which uses the chimera of “resistance” against the West to maintain its grip.

Yet the linkage theory, which has acquired the status of received wisdom, continues to survive reality checks, today achieving doctrinal status. On a visit to Israel in February, news reports had Vice President Biden telling Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that “this is starting to get dangerous for us. What you’re doing here undermines the security of our troops who are fighting in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. That endangers us and it endangers regional peace.” The White House later denied that Biden had said these exact words, but this sentiment has clearly become a factor in the president’s whole approach to foreign policy. In a 2008 interview, the Atlantic ’s Jeffrey Goldberg asked then candidate Barack Obama if he believed “Israel is a drag on America’s reputation overseas.” Obama replied, “No, no, no. But what I think is that this constant wound, that this constant sore, does infect all of our foreign policy.” He went on to say that “the lack of a resolution to this problem provides an excuse for anti-American militant jihadists to engage in inexcusable actions, and so we have a national-security interest in solving this, and I also believe that Israel has a security interest in solving this because I believe that the status quo is unsustainable.”

Soon after assuming office, the Obama administration insisted upon a total settlement freeze in the West Bank and Jerusalem as a precondition for peace talks, an unprecedented demand. In April of this year, word leaked that the administration was planning to impose its own terms on Israel, including insistence on an immediate withdrawal to borders prior to the Palestinian-launched 2000 intifada. At a press conference, Obama said that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, among other regional problems, is “a vital national security interest of the United States . . . costing us significantly in terms of both blood and treasure.” And, extending linkage into a new frontier, the administration has explicitly connected progress on the Middle East peace process to the far more pressing problem of Iran’s nuclear capability, arguing that a resolution of the former will somehow lead to a resolution of the latter.


T he clearest indication of linkage’s dogmatic status arrived in a speech delivered last year by National Security Adviser Jim Jones. “If there was any one problem I’d tell [the] president he should solve, this would be it,” Jones told a room full of supporters of J Street, a “pro-Israel, pro-peace” lobby founded in 2008 to support greater American pressure on Israel. This must mean that the failure to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict presents a greater danger to the United States than a nuclear Iran, al-Qaeda’s continuing terror campaign, or the resurgence of the Taliban in Afghanistan, just to name a few of the threats facing the country. And this is because, according to linkage doctrine, “solving” the Arab-Israeli conflict would alleviate, if not outright eliminate, all of these other, second-order problems.

But why would al-Qaeda—an organization that has killed far more Muslims than it has Americans (or Israelis, for that matter), and which seeks the overthrow of a variety of Arab regimes across the Middle East—care so much about an agreement between the Palestinians and Israelis? Yes, Osama bin Laden did mention Israel in his 1996 declaration of war against the United States, but it followed a laundry list of other grievances, including the presence of American soldiers in Saudi Arabia and continued sanctions on Iraq. And a survey of al-Qaeda statements in the years since has shown the cause of “Palestine” to be a passing concern, secondary to “crusades” like the international effort to help East Timor achieve independence from Muslim Indonesia. As Lee Smith, author of the excellent new book The Strong Horse: Power, Politics, and the Clash of Arab Civilizations , has argued, the Israeli-Palestinian issue “is one among many conflicts [emphasis added] 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.”

What makes linkage so useful to Western leaders is that it is a cheap way of reaching out to Arab hard-liners. In April, Israel presented evidence showing that Syria was transferring Scud missiles to Hezbollah, which ought to have surprised nobody, but is nonetheless a clear violation of U.N. Resolution 1559. In response, the Syrians and their allies claimed that the accusations were nothing more than an Israeli attempt to distract everyone from . . . the Palestinian question. “Bringing up the issue of the missiles is aimed at turning attention away from attempts to drag the Palestinian Authority into negotiations without any guarantees . . . over ending settlement expansion in Jerusalem and other areas,” said the Syrian-aligned speaker of the Lebanese Parliament, Nabih Berri. This line was echoed by a United States senator, who, while condemning the illegal Syrian shipment, noted that, “There’s only one thing that’s going to solve it, and that’s a two-state solution.” To accept this line of reasoning, one would have to believe two things. The first is that the Syrian motive for supporting Hezbollah is the existence of Jewish settlements in the West Bank, and not the existence of Israel itself (which Hezbollah has pledged to “liberate” from Zionist occupation). The second, related to the first, is that, were settlements to disappear tomorrow, then so would Syrian smuggling across the Lebanese border.

To be sure, American support for Israel “angers” many in the Muslim and Arab world. But that only invites the question as to what else America does that also “angers” Muslims. Certainly the decriminalization of homosexuality by the Supreme Court disgusted many Muslims, at least judging by the responses to the decision in much of the Muslim media, and from Muslim clerics. Should we “link” the affirmation of gay rights to the success of our diplomatic efforts in the Middle East? And certainly many Muslims consider the decision by the electorates of some American states to recognize gay marriage an affront as well. Ought we to start beheading homosexuals—the preferred way of dealing with them in Saudi Arabia—to win the approval of the Muslim street? Where does this appeasement—and there really is no other word for it—of reactionary Muslim attitudes end? And what does it say about those in the West who would point to the words of Islamic fascists as rationale for their own policy prescriptions?

 

T he recent obsession with linking the fate of the Israeli-Palestinian question to broader world peace might give one the impression that the theory is somehow new. But linkage is a myth that various Arab leaders and intellectuals have been pushing for sixty years. Today, the argument is merely a moderated form of the earlier claim (still widely held by Arabs, if not expressed by their leaders) that the very presence of a Jewish state in the Middle East would be “contrary to the Arabs’ birthright” and “only lead to trouble and bloodshed and probably to a third world war,” as a representative of the Arab League to the United Nations said in 1947. Today, with the existence of Israel a reality and successive Arab attempts to destroy it thwarted, the claim has been modified. Now it is the lack of a Palestinian state, rather than the existence of Israel itself, that is supposed to enflame the hearts of Arabs and Muslims from Marrakech to Riyadh to Lahore and everywhere in between. This much, at least, is clear from the history of linkage: the Arabs have learned which positions sell and which don’t.

From the beginning of Zionist settlement in the late nineteenth century, and throughout the worst years of the Nazi Holocaust and the aftermath of World War II, Arab leaders expressed their displeasure with the influx of Jewish immigrants and refugees to anyone who would listen. They claimed that increased emigration of Jews to the region, never mind the creation of a sovereign Jewish state in their midst, was unacceptable, and carried out the occasional pogrom to get their message across. Many diplomats in the United States and Great Britain (which then held mandatory power over Palestine) accepted these arguments as reason not to support the creation of a Jewish state, without bothering to consider whether what the Arabs were telling them was reasonable or morally justifiable. Expediency was reason enough. After all, there are far more Arabs and Muslims in the world than Jews, and to earn their enmity over a small strip of land on the Mediterranean, especially when access to cheap oil might be threatened, was considered counterproductive.

Just days before Israel declared its independence, Prince Faisal of Saudi Arabia threatened Secretary of State Dean Acheson, telling him that the Arab world “could not ever accept a Jewish state,” as it would be an “abscess to the political body of the Arabs.” American and British diplomats had been hearing such threats for years, and it was only after intense and divisive debate within his administration that Harry Truman decided to recognize Israel. But this notion of Israel representing a wound on Arab pride has remained with us despite its vacuousness. If the Arabs were so moved by the plight of the Palestinians, surely they would devote some of their vast oil wealth to helping them settle elsewhere (as Israel has done with millions of Jews from across the world), or at least improve their living conditions. The ways in which various Arab countries treat and have treated their Palestinian refugee populations—as in Lebanon, where Palestinians are relegated to squalid refugee camps, or Jordan, where King Hussein slaughtered some twenty-five thousand of them in 1970—do not attest to this alleged fraternal sympathy.

Indeed, the frivolity of the linkage theory is apparent in the selectivity of the outrage it provokes. Why is it that Israeli apartment construction in East Jerusalem, and not, say, the mass killing of Muslims in Sudan, stirs the hearts of the Arab world? One would have been hard-pressed to find much substantive coverage of that genocide in the Arab media, which is busy directing the attention of Arabs to the many small ways in which “crusader Zionists” and their American allies oppress Muslims. The reason for the double standard can probably be found in the fact that the perpetrators of the Sudanese genocide were themselves Muslim (and Arab), and their victims black. But the stunted maturity of Arabs’ political culture does not excuse Western acceptance of their hyperbole. Let the Arab and Muslim world show some anger at the vast array of human rights abuses committed by their own and against their own before we accept their mawkish claims of indignation on behalf of the Palestinians at face value.

 

T he reason why Israel is pointed to as the cause of so much Arab and Muslim rage is that it’s the most easily available excuse. The shopworn (and false) narrative of Jews living on stolen “Muslim land” (as if land could actually be claimed by a faith) is one that can be peddled to Muslim populations around the world, regardless of denomination. And because of the narrative’s apparent simplicity, many in the West accept it as well, even if they are broadly sympathetic with the Zionist cause. In a recent interview with Charlie Rose, for instance, Bill Clinton, who came closer than any American leader to achieving a two-state solution only to have it squandered (according to his own account) by Yasir Arafat, said that “half of the energy coming out of all this organization and money-raising for terror comes out of the allegations around the unresolved Palestinian issue.” Aside from the dubious veracity of this claim, if the Palestinians were ever to accept the offer that has been made to them by a succession of Israeli prime ministers and agree to a state on all of the Gaza Strip and most of the West Bank, the global Islamist movement would still have plenty of other alleged grievances to justify bloodshed, not least of which would be their claim that a two-state solution itself represents an unacceptable concession to the infidels.

It is one thing to say that the Palestinian people deserve a state. It is another thing entirely to say that their lack of having one is in any way responsible for bombings in Bali, Baghdad, or Bagram. To do so buys into the propaganda of the most vicious and reactionary forces in the Middle East, who cynically exploit the Palestinians for their own ends. One can be an adamant supporter of Palestinian statehood and a foe of Israeli settlement construction while also realizing the ulterior motives behind those who propagate the myth of linkage. Other than the promises of Arab despots, there’s no real reason to believe that Arab attitudes toward the United States would change were it to forge a deal between Israel and the Palestinians, a deal which, given the present state of Palestinian politics, would not last long.

To judge by the obsession of so many Western leaders with the “peace process,” there is little reason to hope that they will renounce the seductive illogic of linking every problem plaguing our relationship with the Muslim world to ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But if morality is to play a prominent role in American foreign policy, as most Americans believe it should, then that policy should not be held hostage to the cynical and historically illiterate arguments offered by Arab regimes and their apologists. Let the Israeli-Palestinian conflict resolve itself on its own terms, if it is ever to be resolved, and let us not force upon the parties a solution that neither of them are willing to accept and that will only prove to be a prelude to the next phase of the Islamist struggle.

If the Palestinian problem didn’t exist, the Arab and Muslim regions would have to invent it. The authoritarian regimes that rule over so many of the world’s Muslims need something to distract attention away from their corruption, lavish lifestyles, and utter inability at providing a hopeful future for their citizens. Directing the collective awareness of not just Arab and Muslim populations but also the elite class of Western policymakers to the Palestinian question has proven to be an amazingly useful propaganda tool. Those who designed it have been able to convince much of the world that the most egregious problem confronting humanity is the fate that has befallen the Palestinians. The diplomatic extortion and moral blackmail of “linkage” has diverted attention from addressing far more pressing issues and has provided leaders in the West with the illusion of an easy way out of tough problems.

James Kirchick is a contributing editor for the New Republic.

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