Of all the policy myths that have kept us from making real progress in the Middle East, one stands out for its impact and longevity: the idea that if only the Palestinian conflict were solved, all the other Middle East conflicts would melt away. This is the argument of "linkage."
Neoconservatives have always rejected it, given their skepticism about Arab intentions and their related belief that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict cannot be resolved. While realists have been the most determined purveyors, this myth transcends all others and has had amazing staying power here, internationally, and in the Middle East. In fact, few ideas have been as consistently and forcefully promoted - by laymen, policymakers, and leaders alike.
One need not look too far for examples of linkage's pervasiveness. Note the words of Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak in early 2008 when, standing next to George W. Bush at a joint press conference following their talks in the Sinai resort town of Sharm al-Sheikh, he recounted their conversation: "I emphasize that the Palestinian question, of course, is the core of problems and conflict in the Middle East, and it is the entry to contain the crisis and tension in the region, and the best means to face what's going on in the world, our region - I mean by that, the escalation of violence, extremism and terrorism."
King Abdullah of Jordan made much the same argument during
an interview with an American television network in 2006: "I keep
saying Palestine is the core. It is linked to the extent of what's going
on in Iraq. It is linked to what's going on in Lebanon."
A Vigorously renewed effort to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict could fundamentally change both the dynamics in the region and the strategic calculus of key leaders. Real progress would push Iran into a more defensive posture. Hezbollah and Hamas would lose their rallying principle. American allies like Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf states would be liberated to assist in stabilizing Iraq. And Iraq would finally be seen by all as a key country that had to be set right in the pursuit of regional security.
Similarly, the Iraq Study Group, co-chaired by James Baker and Lee Hamilton, placed special emphasis on the idea of linkage: "To put it simply, all key issues in the Middle East - the Arab-Israeli conflict, Iraq, Iran, the need for political and economic reforms, and extremism and terrorism - are inextricably linked.
Such bold statements are rarely qualified. In effect, they are guided by a central premise: that ending the Arab-Israeli conflict is prerequisite to addressing the maladies of the Middle East. Solve it, and in doing so conclude all other conflicts. Fail, and instability - even war - will engulf the entire region.
The major problem with this premise is that it is not true. There have been dozens of conflicts and countless coups in the Middle East since Israel's birth in 1948, and most were completely unrelated to the Arab-Israeli conflict. For example, the Iraqi coup of 1958, the Lebanon crisis of 1958, the Yemini civil war of 1962-68 (including subsequent civil wars in the 1980s and '90s), the Iraqi Kurdish revolt of 1974, the Egyptian-Libyan Border War of 1977, the Iran-Iraq War of 1980-88, the Persian Gulf War of 1990-91 (including Iraqi Kurdish and Iraqi Shiite revolts of the same year), the Yemeni-Eritrean and Saudi-Yemeni border conflicts of the mid-1990s, and the US-Iraq War, begun in 2003.
Many of these conflicts were long, bloody, and very costly. The Iran-Iraq War lasted eight and a half years, cost in the hundreds of billions of dollars, and took between six hundred thousand and one million lives. Yet this conflict, like the others listed above, would have taken place even if the Arab-Israeli conflict had been resolved.
Since the origins of so many regional tensions and rivalries are not connected to the Arab-Israeli conflict, it is hard to see how resolving it would unlock other regional stalemates or sources of instability. Iran, for example, is not pursuing its nuclear ambitions because there is an Arab-Israeli conflict. Sectarian groups in Iraq would not suddenly put aside their internal struggles if the Palestinian issue were resolved. Like so many conflicts in the region, these struggles have their own dynamic.
In addition, as tragic as the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians has become, it has not spilled over to destabilize the Middle East. There have been two Palestinian Intifadas, or uprisings, including one that lasted from 2000 to 2005 and claimed the lives of 4,000 Palestinians and 1,000 Israelis - but not a single Arab leader had been toppled or a single regime destabilized as a result. It has remained a local conflict, contained in a small geographical area. Yet the argument of linkage endures to this day, and with powerful promoters. Why does it persist? And why has it been accepted among top policymakers as if it is factually correct?
Gerardo Joffe, President