It's been said that the most important step in problem solving is defining what the problem is. This is even more true in politics when the terms in which a problem is originally cast often determines how it is approached in the future. Martin Kramer asks, at Middle East Strategy at Harvard, why every Middle Eastern crisis is necessarily linked to Israel. Kramer argues that Israel is placed at the center of every problem in the region not because it is true; but because things have been set up that way. The result he says, is a distortion in which otherwise tractable problems are twisted out of shape and made dependent on the resolution of its "linkage".
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 ... And it isn’t just the specialists. They would be seconded by 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.” ...
But the bottom line is this ... 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.
Kramer may well be right; and diplomats may be missing opportunity after opportunity in the Middle East because of slavish adherence to a "linkage" model that is largely illusory. But irrational approaches seldom survive for many decades without some underlying logic. There is probably a reason for the popularity of the "linkage" theory that posits Israel as the cause of every disturbance in the region. The obvious candidate is politics. The "linkage" theory retains its currency because it is good politics and not because it has any utility in fixing the problems in the Middle East.
Political movements often need a narrative to justify acts which would otherwise plainly be seen to be driven by expediency and self interest. The "linkage" with Israel provides an admirable pretext to excuse misgovernance, terrorism and outright thievery. "God's Army to Combat Zionism and Free Al-Quds" sounds a heck of a lot more noble than Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves. (With apologies to Ali Baba, who really wasn't part of the Forty Thieves, but I digress) Without "linkage" perfume to deodorize his despicable deeds, the late and unlamented Yasser Arafat would have graced the FBI Most Wanted Poster rather than the cover Time Magazine's 1993 Person of the Year issue. Tom Gross called Yasser Araft "the great con man of modern politics". Even while Araft was still alive, CBS News reported that "Jim Prince and a team of American accountants - hired by Arafat's own finance ministry" found he had probably stolen a billion dollars for his own use.
So far, Prince's team has determined that part of the Palestinian leader's wealth was in a secret portfolio worth close to $1 billion -- with investments in companies like a Coca-Cola bottling plant in Ramallah, a Tunisian cell phone company and venture capital funds in the U.S. and the Cayman Islands.
Although the money for the portfolio came from public funds like Palestinian taxes, virtually none of it was used for the Palestinian people; it was all controlled by Arafat. And, Prince says, none of these dealings were made public.
What ultimately prevented the detection of Arafat's obvious knavery, what made it feasible for Arafat to become the "great con man of modern politics" was the "linkage" myth. As long as he could convince people that he was "struggling" against Israel, Arafat would be given a pass -- and more than a pass -- he would be accorded adulation. Today Arafat's signature keffiyeh has taken the fashion world by storm; like a kind of latter-day Mao cap or Che Guevara t-shirt.
Martin Kramer is right in saying that in most cases "linkage" doesn't make much sense as a framwork within which to view Middle Eastern problems. But the point is that it doesn't have to. It is really all about blinding us to a regional tragedy which, if we could but see clearly through the veil of misdirection, would darken our eyes with tears.
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