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The New “Linkage Theory”

The “linkage theory” of Middle East peace is a much reviled theory, as far as Israelis are concerned. It assumes, wrongly, that solving the Arab-Israeli conflict–or more specifically the Israeli-Palestinian conflict–is the key to solving the broader problems of the Middle East. As the Iraq Study Group chose to put it, “the United States will not be able to achieve its goals in the Middle East unless the United States deals directly with the Arab-Israeli conflict.”

This is the story Arab leaders try to sell, time and again, to world leaders, mostly from America. What they tell them, in essence, is this: fix the Palestinian situation, and the rest will sort itself out. Not that they themselves believe it. They just know that this answer will buy them some precious time. Philip Zelikow, former advisor to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, described such a mechanism more than two years ago: “For the Arab moderates and for the Europeans, some sense of progress and momentum on the Arab-Israeli dispute is just a sine qua non for their ability to cooperate actively with the United States on a lot of other things that we care about.”

It is also a story quite popular in some quarters of the American foreign policy establishment. People frustrated with U.S. failures in the region; people opposed to the war in Iraq; people angry with the “Israel lobby”; people well-connected to the “Arab lobby” or the “oil lobby”; people preoccupied with Israel’s occupation to the extent that they can’t think of anything else that’s gone wrong in the world; people who just don’t understand the Middle East. All these are easy prey for those selling the linkage theory as the ultimate cure to Middle East troubles.

But something funny has happened to the “linkage theory.” Suddenly, this theory can serve Israelis better than it serves the Arabs, or even Americans and Europeans wanting an end to Israeli “occupation.” Gideon Rachman, in a column for the Financial Times, has touched on this conceptual flip briefly, without even really acknowledging the surprising turn of events:

It is not clear that progress in one area will necessarily unlock the others. Let us say that the Iranians are miraculously persuaded to abandon their nuclear ambitions. Does that automatically lead to the establishment of a viable Palestinian state? Clearly not. Or put it the other way round: let us say the Israelis are miraculously persuaded to grant the Palestinians a viable state. Does that persuade the Iranians to abandon all thoughts of pursuing nuclear weapons? Clearly not. In fact, linking Iran and Israel-Palestine could inadvertently do the Iranians a favour, by tacitly conceding them a legitimate role in Gaza and in Lebanon.

So, the cat is out of the bag: “linkage” serves the Iranians! But there’s another segment of this theory that (counter-intuitively) serves Israel’s claims: solve the Iran problem, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict becomes much easier to solve. Here’s Rachman again:

[S]ignificant progress in one area would improve prospects in another. So if there were a rapprochement between Iran and the US that involved the Iranians cutting off support for Hamas, the Israelis would feel more secure – and that might make a Middle East peace settlement easier to achieve. Similarly, the establishment of a proper Palestinian state would remove a source of anger and anti-western grievance across the region, and so undermine an angry, anti-western regime such as Iran.

The real difference between the original linkage (Palestine first) and the second (Iran first) is that the second one has a much better chance of actually making peace in the Middle East. Iran, after all–and this is something not even Israel’s critics dispute – is a source of instability across the region. Problems in Iraq: look to Iran. Problems in Lebanon: Iran funds, equips, and trains Hezbollah. Problems with the Palestinians: Iran is the backer of Hamas, the terror group controlling the Gaza strip. Syria? Iran is its principal ally.

If Iran is the hand reaching into so many pockets of trouble, why deal with the problems separately instead of going to the source? Rachman seems to prefer the “separate” approach, thinking–not without merit–that dealing with the region as a package carries the “risk of being over-ambitious.” Other serious scholars concluded, long ago, that “linkages simply don’t exist.” However, if one still believes that “linkage” is the way, dealing with Iran first is the more rational way to go.

Of course, such theories, if offered by Israeli officials, will immediately raise doubts about Israel’s sincerity and seriousness on the Palestinian front. I can already hear the coming complaints: the Israelis are trying to buy time, they are looking for excuses not to do anything, they are dragging their feet, they are overstating the danger of Iran to avoid the tough choices Israel has to make, etc. But hey, Israelis didn’t invent the linkage theory, or encourage others to link Arab-Israeli peace with the general instability of the region.



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