Commentary Magazine


RE: Petraeus on Israel

Aside from the factual question of what Petraeus did and did not say about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the incident has touched off a round of mild gloating among many liberals. They think that one of their cherished beliefs — that the conflict seriously undermines America’s ability to pursue its interests elsewhere in the Middle East — has been confirmed by a hero of the very people who reject this belief.

Martin Kramer has subjected this idea — often called “linkage” — to rigorous criticism, but it doesn’t tend to matter, because its popularity is grounded more in politics than in scholarship: once it can be claimed that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict affects everything, then the conflict vastly increases in importance, and the need for intervention and an imposed “solution” becomes intense.

The linkage debate reminds me of George F. Kennan’s famous 1947 essay, “The Sources of Soviet Conduct,” which began life as “The Long Telegram,” sent by Kennan when he was stationed at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow. The State Department was interested in what today would be called an engagement policy with the Soviets, and Kennan thought this was not just foolish but also impossible. His missive argued that the United States could not have productive relations with the Soviets because of the very nature of Communism and authoritarianism. He wrote:

There is ample evidence that the stress laid in Moscow on the menace confronting Soviet society from the world outside its borders is founded not in the realities of foreign antagonism but in the necessity of explaining away the maintenance of dictatorial authority at home.

One of the obvious problems with linkage is that the objection of the Iranian-Syrian “resistance bloc,” not to mention large segments of Arab public opinion, is not that the Palestinians don’t have a state — it’s that the Jews do have one.

But a less obvious problem with linkage is its prediction that the resolution of Palestinian grievances will mollify the regimes that are so deeply invested in antagonizing Israel and keeping Arab publics in a state of anti-Israel (and anti-Semitic) fervor.

As Kennan pointed out, such regimes must cultivate “fear societies” in order to justify their rule, deflect popular anger, and prevent the emergence of civil society (that is, sources of power outside the regime). In a region like the Middle East, which also happens to be Muslim, this means that authoritarian regimes are always going to channel rage toward the ultimate “other” — Israel — ensuring an endless list of grievances and a perpetually restive Arab street. The fact of the matter is that anti-Israel and anti-Semitic fervor are no lower in Egypt and Jordan, which both have peace treaties with Israel, than they are elsewhere in the region — fervor that is eagerly promoted by the regimes. Linkage thus will never die because antagonism toward Israel is a permanent requirement of authoritarian Arab politics.

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