Barack Obama’s administration is a big fan of “linkage” — the theory that solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would, in his words, “change the strategic landscape of the Middle East” and “help us deal with terrorist organizations in the region.” And actually, he’s half right: America’s handling of this conflict does affect the Middle East’s strategic landscape. But the link, as newly declassified documents from the Vietnam War make clear, isn’t what Obama thinks it is. And therefore, his policies are making war more likely, not less.
Obama believes Palestinian suffering is a top Muslim concern that contributes greatly to radicalizing Muslim extremists. Thus, if America forced Israel to capitulate to Palestinian demands, not only would Muslims like America better, but all the Muslim world’s other problems would be easier to solve, because a key source of radicalization would be gone.
That version of linkage is clearly delusional. Just consider last month’s deadly bombing by Sunni extremists of a Shiite march in Pakistan. The march was one of several nationwide to “observe Al Quds Day, an annual protest to express solidarity with Palestinians and condemn Israel.” Yet solidarity with the Palestinians evidently ranks so low on the Muslim agenda that Sunnis and Shiites couldn’t suspend their mutual bloodletting for one day to unite around this issue. So how would a Palestinian state ease this Sunni-Shiite divide?
But as the Vietnam documents show, linkage does exist. When the 1973 Yom Kippur War erupted, forcing then-secretary of state Henry Kissinger to spend months brokering cease-fire agreements between Israel, Syria, and Egypt, the Vietnam War still raged. So after one of Kissinger’s trips to the region, then-ambassador to Saigon Graham Martin asked him “about the connection between what was happening in the Middle East and Vietnam.” Kissinger replied:
It hurt us with the Arabs. [Syrian President Hafez] Assad said in his talks with me, “You look what you’ve done to Taiwan, Cambodia, Vietnam, Portugal, etc.” … Assad said, “Therefore if you look at this, you will give up Israel, and so [Egyptian President Anwar] Sadat should simply not give in.”
In short, it wasn’t American support for Israel that hurt America with the Arabs, but the Arabs’ conviction that this support would prove ephemeral, as it had with other American allies. The more convinced the Arabs were that America would ultimately abandon its allies, the less reason they saw to compromise, the more inflexible their positions became, and the more they preferred alliances with America’s enemies instead (in this case, the Soviet Union).
The same dynamic is evident today. Obama’s avowed goal of putting “daylight” between the U.S. and Israel, coupled with his downgrading of other traditional American allies in favor of longtime enemies, has convinced Palestinians that if they hold out, America will eventually abandon Israel, too. And why compromise now if they could have it all later? Hence the flurry of new demands, like no negotiations without a settlement freeze, that they never posed before.
It seems some things never change. Today, too, the real link between Israel and the broader Middle Eastern strategic landscape remains America’s credibility as an ally.