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The myth of Middle East linkage

 

By Martin Kramer

 

Last September, when I arrived in Cambridge for my fall stay at Harvard, I opened the Boston Globe and saw this headline over an editorial: “The Other Middle East Conflict.” I immediately said to myself: well, I know what the Middle East conflict is - that’s the Israelis and the Palestinians. So what is the other Middle East conflict? But as I read through the first sentence, it became clear that I was totally wrong. The editorialist, or the headline writer, assumed that most readers would understand “the Middle East conflict” to be the war in Iraq. By the “other Middle East conflict,” it turned out, they meant the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.

I began to wonder whether typical students, in a classroom, would know what I was talking about if I started discussing “the Middle East conflict” without defining it. And if I defined it as Israel and the Palestinians, would I be showing my age?

It also reminded me of something else that had surprised me: a 2005 National Geographic survey of US 18-to-24-year-olds, asking them to look at a blank map of the Middle East and locate Israel, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and Iran. I would have guessed that Israel would have loomed largest on the mental maps of young Americans today.

I would have been wrong. Thirty-seven percent can identify Iraq and 37% can find Saudi Arabia - not high percentages overall. But even fewer, 26%, can identify Iran, and still fewer, 25%, can find Israel on a blank map. Perhaps it isn’t surprising when one recalls that war has cycled well over over a million Americans through Iraq and Afghanistan - as soldiers, administrators, and contractors. Thanks to war, the Middle East of early 21st century America has been re-centred - away from Israel and toward the Persian Gulf. That is where conflict commands American attention.

But not everyone thinks it should. The last time I counted papers at the Middle East Studies Association annual conference, about two years ago, there were 85 papers on Palestine-Israel, 30 on Iraq, 27 on Iran, and only 4 on Saudi Arabia. Here, too, the skewing is conflict-driven - that is, the judgment that the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians should command American attention.

And it isn’t just the specialists. They would be seconded by former US President Jimmy Carter, who was recently asked: “Is the Israel-Palestine conflict still the key to peace in the whole region? Is the linkage policy right?” Carter’s answer: “I don’t think it’s about a linkage policy, but a linkage fact... Without doubt, the path to peace in the Middle East goes through Jerusalem.” Likewise, Zbigniew Brzezinski, Carter’s former national security adviser: “The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the single most combustible and galvanising issue in the Arab world.”

This is obviously meaningless unless one has weighed all the other issues. Is it more combustible than the Kurdish question? Is it more galvanising than Sunni-Shi’ite animosity? How would Brzezinski know if it were? I have broken down all Middle Eastern conflicts into nine clusters, and have appended them below. You decide.

But the bottom line is this: given so long a list, it is obvious that conflict involving Israel is not the longest, or the bloodiest, or the most widespread of the region’s conflicts. In large part, these many conflicts are symptoms of the same malaise: The absence of a Middle Eastern order, to replace the old Islamic and European empires. But they are independent symptoms - one conflict does not cause another, and its “resolution” cannot resolve another.


So the more interesting question is this: Why is the idea of “linkage” so persistent in some quarters? Why are there still people who see one particular conflict as “the Middle East conflict,” and who believe that in seeking to resolve it, they are pursuing “the Middle East peace process”?

Some would answer this question by pointing to the world’s fascination with Israel. Unlike, say, the future of the Kurds, the future of Israel (and the Palestinians) fascinates the world. A conflict involving Jews, set in the Holy Land of Christianity and in a place of high significance to Islam, is destined to receive more than its share of attention. There is also an illusion of familiarity with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. No-one beyond the specialists can spell out the difference between Sunnis and Shi’ites, or understand why the (Muslim) Sudanese government is persecuting the (Muslim) people of Darfur. But many people believe (usually wrongly) that they understand the core of the issue between Israel and the Palestinians.

Others might point to the West’s self-imposed obligation to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In Europe, but to some extent also in America and even Israel, there is a perceived sense of guilt at having caused the conflict in the first place. There may be other conflicts that are more dangerous, but foreigners did not create the Arab-Persian or Shi’ite-Sunni conflicts, whereas the international community facilitated the creation of Israel and legitimated it by a UN resolution, along with a Palestinian state. Thus, many believe, the world has a special obligation to employ all means to bring peace to Israelis and Palestinians.

Others might point to the fact that a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (and the leftover Israeli-Syrian conflict) still lies just around the corner, because it was once so tantalisingly close. All of the conflicts’ protagonists were regular guests in the White House and frequent guests of a succession of US secretaries of state. No one knows what it would take to end other conflicts, but there are “parameters” for ending this one.

All of these beliefs are widespread, and they explain why so much attention and effort have been lavished on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But they do not explain the belief in linkage. It is possible to be fascinated by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, feel obligated to resolve it, and think it is relatively easy to resolve, and still not believe in linkage - that is, that the success of your efforts will bring a greater reward across the Middle East, or that an absence of progress will have grave consequences across the region.

The concept of linkage requires another belief: That the Middle East is a system, like Europe, and that its conflicts are related to one another.


Europe in modern times became a complex, interlocking system in which an event in one corner could set off a chain reaction. In Europe, local conflicts could escalate very rapidly into European conflicts (and ultimately, given Europe’s world dominance, into global conflicts). And Europe had a core problem - the conflict between Germany and France. Resolving it was a precondition for bringing peace to the entire continent. Churchill put his finger on this in 1946: “The first step in the re-creation of the European Family,” he said, “must be a partnership between France and Germany.”

Linkage, I propose - and this is my original thesis - is a projection of this memory of Europe’s re-creation onto the Middle East. The pacification of Europe was the signal achievement of the United States and its allies in the middle of the 20th century. It then became the prism through which the United States and Europe came to view the Middle East. From NATO to the European Union, from the reconstruction of Germany to Benelux, Europe’s experience has provided the template for visions of the future Middle East.

It was this mindset that led analysts and diplomats, for about three decades after the creation of Israel, to interpret Israel’s conflict with its neighbours as “the Middle East conflict.” Like the conflict between France and Germany, the Arab-Israeli conflict was understood to be the prime cause of general instability throughout the region, as evidenced by repeated Arab-Israeli wars, in 1948, 1956, 1967, and 1973.

The flaws in the analogy only began to appear after Egypt and Israel achieved peace in 1979. From that point onward, the Arab-Israeli conflict moved in fits and starts toward resolution. Yet other conflicts in the region intensified. Large-scale wars erupted - not between Israel and its neighbours, but in the Persian Gulf, where a revolution in Iran, and the belligerence of Iraq, exacted a horrendous toll and required repeated US interventions.

By any objective reading, the reality should have been clear: The Middle East is not analogous to Europe, it has multiple sources of conflict, and even as one conflict moves to resolution, another may be inflamed. This is because the Middle East is not a single system of interlocking parts. It is made up of smaller systems and distinct pieces, that function independently of one another.

The myth of “linkage” persists, then, because many observers cannot shed the analogy of the Middle East with Europe. A good case is Brzezinski, a man who did play a role in reconstructing Europe, and who has said: “The problems of the Middle East are conflated, and certainly the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and Iraq are interactive. That’s absolutely a fundamental truth.” This is no more than a profession of faith, mere habit and analogy substituting for analysis.

The myth of linkage also persists because, paradoxically, the neo-conservatives embraced it. They, too, made extravagant claims about the likely effects of Iraq’s “liberation” from Saddam’s regime, which they understood as directly analogous to the destruction of Hitler’s dictatorship. Former CIA Director James Woolsey, before the war, used precisely this analogy: “This could be a golden opportunity to begin to change the face of the Arab world. Just as what we did in Germany changed the face of Central and Eastern Europe, here we have got a golden chance.” Saddam’s fall hasn’t had any such effect, but such claims have tended to validate the idea of linkage as a principle - that roads from here lead to there.

Finally, there is the deliberate effort by Iran, al-Qaeda, and others, to create linkage, or at least the illusion of it. In a bid for the sympathy of the fabled “Arab street”, they seek to portray the conflict with Israel as a supra-conflict between Islam and evil. The globalised Arab media such as al-Jazeera effectively do the same. Then various Pew and Zogby polls pick up the reverberations and spread the message to Western elites that nothing interests the “Arab street” so much as Israeli misdeeds and American support for them.

Take, for example, this statement by Jimmy Carter:

There is no doubt: The heart and mind of every Muslim is affected by whether or not the Israel-Palestine issue is dealt with fairly. Even among the populations of our former close friends in the region, Egypt and Jordan, less than 5 percent look favourably on the United States today. That’s not because we invaded Iraq; they hated Saddam. It is because we don’t do anything about the Palestinian plight.

Carter, of course, has no idea what is in the “heart and mind of every Muslim.” He simply picks up sound bites from pollsters and so-called experts on Arab opinion. He then avoids the inconvenient fact that while the United States has been accused for decades of doing nothing for the Palestinians, its popularity in places like Jordan and Egypt has only plummeted since the Iraq invasion - military action that removed a ruler, Saddam Hussein, who was beloved by the “Arab street” and Arab intellectuals.

I have called linkage a myth, both in past and present. It is a myth because the Middle East is not a single region. But is it destined to remain so?


I still believe the Middle East is less integrated than Europe, but it does share one feature with early 20th century Europe. Until now, the Middle East has had more geography than military power. States have been unable to project power very far beyond their borders. But the spread of missiles and, possibly, nuclear weapons, could change that, leaving states with too little geography and too much power. In these conditions, conflicts that have been localised could become regionalised. In this case, it would not be the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that would occupy the place of France and Germany. It would be the conflict between Iran and Israel, and between Iran and the moderate Arab states. Such a conflict could configure the Middle East as one region, collapse the distance between the Levant and the Gulf, produce arms races, spur nuclear proliferation and proxy wars, create tightly-integrated alliances - in short, make the Middle East very much like Europe in its darkest days.

Whether the United States will act to affirm the Pax Americana by checking Iran’s rise, remains to be seen. Whether or not it does, but especially if it does not, the common understanding of “the Middle East conflict” seems destined to shift again. We may then look back with nostalgia to a time when the grandiose title of “the Middle East conflict” belonged to Israelis and Palestinians. The next Middle East conflict could be very different.


Clusters of Conflict

1. First, the Arab-Persian conflict (with its origins in earlier Ottoman-Persian conflict). This manifested itself in our time most destructively in the eight-year Iran-Iraq War, and it continues to inflame post-Saddam Iraq and other parts of the Arab/Persian Gulf (even the name of which is the subject of dispute). This is probably one of the oldest rivalries in the history of the world. It has been exacerbated by the bid of Iran, under the Shah and now under the Islamic regime, to restore lost imperial greatness and achieve hegemonic dominance over the Gulf and beyond.

2. Second, the Shi’ite-Sunni conflict, which goes back in various forms for 14 centuries, and which the struggle for Iraq has greatly inflamed, both within that country and beyond. There is some overlap here with Arab-Persian conflict, but the Shi’ite-Sunni conflict also divides Arabs against each other, in Iraq, Lebanon, and the Gulf countries. The ruthless violence between the sects in Iraq suggested the savage potential of this sectarianism.

3. Third, the Kurdish awakening, which involves a large national group experiencing a political revival in the territory of several existing states. Over the past two decades, violent conflict generated by Kurdish aspirations has torn at the fabric of Turkey and Iraq. Kurdish groups have used terrorism and states have used scorched earth repression and chemical weapons against Kurds. Now that Iraqi Kurds have established a de facto state in northern Iraq, there is every prospect that the Kurdish awakening will generate more conflict, possibly involving Turkey, Iran, and Syria.

4. Fourth, the inter-Arab conflict among Arab states over primacy, influence, and borders - the result of disputes created by the post-Ottoman partition of the Arab lands by Britain and France. In some places, these disputes are exacerbated by the inequities in nature’s apportioning of oil resources. The most destructive example of such a conflict in our times was Iraq’s invasion and occupation of Kuwait - the attempted erasure of one Arab state by another. Other examples include Nasser’s invasion of Yemen and Syria’s occupation of Lebanon.

5. Fifth, conflicts over the political aspirations of compact Christian groups with strong historic ties to the West. Foreign Christian minorities were turned out of the region decades ago, but the Maronites of Lebanon and the Greeks of Cyprus have held their ground. In the 1970s, wars were launched to deprive them of their political standing, leading in Cyprus to de facto partition between Greek and Turkish areas, and in Lebanon to a quasi-cantonisation.

6. Sixth, conflicts that arise from the quest of Arab states to preserve or restore parts of their pre-colonial African empires. The most significant conflicts in this category are the long-running war in Sudan, which has descended into genocide in Darfur, and the festering contest over Western Sahara.

7. Seventh, the nationalist-Islamist conflicts within states, which are the result of failed modernisation and the disappointed expectations of independence. The costliest of these conflicts in our time were the Iranian revolution in the 1970s (Islamists prevailed), the Islamist uprising in Syria in the 1980s (nationalists won), and the civil war that ravaged Algeria for much of the 1990s (nationalists triumphed). Smaller scale conflict has occurred in Egypt and Saudi Arabia, and is now afflicting the Palestinian territories.

8. Eighth, numerous conflicts, centred in the Persian Gulf, generated by the addiction of the industrialised West to the vast oil resources of the region. The United States essentially keeps the Gulf as an American lake, using aggressive diplomacy, arms sales to clients, and its own massive force to keep oil flowing at reasonable prices. This has put the United States in direct conflict with regional opponents - Islamic Iran, Saddam’s Iraq, and a non-state actor, al-Qaeda - who have seen its dominance as disguised imperialism. In particular, US-Iranian conflict for regional hegemony has escalated over the last 30 years, and is now being exacerbated by Iran’s nuclear ambitions and pursuit of regional power status.

9. Ninth, there is conflict involving Israel, on three planes: Arab-Israeli (that is, Israel versus Arab states), Palestinian-Israeli, and Iranian-Israeli. The Arab-Israeli conflict produced a series of four inter-state wars in each of the four decades beginning in 1948. But since Egypt’s peace with Israel three decades ago, there have been no general Arab-Israeli wars, and Israel has negotiated formal or de facto agreements or understandings with its neighbouring states. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict periodically erupts and subsides (most dramatically in two intifadas), and continues to defy resolution, but hasn’t led to a regional conflagration. The brewing Iranian-Israeli conflict isn’t about the Palestinians; it is an extension of the contest between the US and Iran for regional dominance. This conflict has manifested itself in short but sharp contests between Israel and Hezbollah in Lebanon.


Professor Martin Kramer is Adelson Institute Senior Fellow at the Shalem Centre in Jerusalem, the Wexler-Fromer Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, and Olin Institute Senior Fellow at Harvard University. Previously, he directed the Moshe Dayan Centre for Middle Eastern and African Studies at Tel Aviv University. An authority on contemporary Islam and Arab politics, he has authored or edited nine books, and published dozens of academic papers. A version of this essay was first presented as a lecture as part of the Director’s Series at Harvard’s Centre for Middle Eastern Studies on October 24, 2007. This updated version was posted on the Middle East Studies at Harvard blog (http://blogs.law.harvard.edu/mesh/) on June 12. © Martin Kramer, reprinted by permission, all rights reserved.

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