By Matthew Duss
In March 2010, then-CENTCOM chief Gen. David Petraeus set off a storm of protest among neoconservatives when, in his statement to the Senate Armed Services Committee, he named "insufficient progress toward a comprehensive Middle East peace" as an obstacle to U.S. goals in the region."The enduring hostilities between Israel and some of its neighbors present distinct challenges to our ability to advance our interests in the AOR [area of responsibility]," read the statement. "Arab anger over the Palestinian question limits the strength and depth of U.S. partnerships with governments and peoples in the AOR and weakens the legitimacy of moderate regimes in the Arab world." At the same time, Petraeus concluded, "Al-Qaeda and other militant groups exploit that anger to mobilize support. The conflict also gives Iran influence in the Arab world through its clients, Lebanese Hizballah and Hamas."
While this represented only one of a number of "cross cutting challenges to security and stability" detailed in his statement, Petraeus' analysis was too much for the Anti-Defamation League's Abe Foxman, who quickly issued a scolding: "Gen. Petraeus has simply erred in linking the challenges faced by the U.S. and coalition forces in the region to a solution of the Israeli-Arab conflict," said Foxman. "This linkage is dangerous and counterproductive."
That such a carefully calibrated statement of the obvious should draw condemnation from the ADL -- as if the very suggestion that Israel's conflicts could create difficulties for its American patron were itself a form of defamation -- indicates how uncomfortable the notion of "linkage" makes many Israel hawks.
Basically, the "linkage" argument holds that continued irresolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict hinders America's ability to achieve its national security goals in the region, both by serving as a driver of extremism and a source of anti-American sentiment. Critics of the argument contend that the significance of the conflict has been vastly overblown, and that "the Palestinian issue" is simply an excuse used by violent extremists and lacking genuine salience among Arabs, despite what they may say in public.
The recent release of thousands of U.S. diplomatic cables by WikiLeaks, however, allows us to see what Arab leaders say in private -- and many Israel hawks have been quick to claim vindication.
The Hudson Institute's Lee Smith, who has dismissed linkage as "magical thinking" and/or crafty Arab mythmaking, wrote that the cables showed that, "counter to what we've been told for over a half century," the Palestinian issue is unimportant. "American journalists still get the ‘half-hour drill' -- I've gotten it most recently from the prime minister of Lebanon," Smith wrote, "but with U.S. diplomats, Arab rulers have more pressing issues to discuss."
Former George W. Bush speechwriter David Frum crowed that the cables demonstrated the pointlessness of Middle East peacemaking. "We engage in these wearisome and elaborate proceedings because we assume that the Israeli-Palestinian dispute holds the key to regional peace," wrote Frum. "But now the whole world can see: It's not true. Governments in the region do not in fact care very much about the Israeli-Palestinian dispute."
"In private, we now know that the Arabs barely ever mention Palestine," wrote Noah Pollak, executive director of the Emergency Committee for Israel.
A memo from the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs called on the Obama administration to "abandon the ‘peace process' and move on." "WikiLeaks showed that the Administration deliberately miscast the centrality of Palestine in Middle East politics," said the memo. According to JINSA, the cables revealed that the Arabs "pleaded with the Administration to tackle Iran first and Iran only."
All of this would seem to demonstrate the bankruptcy of the linkage argument. In reality, what it demonstrates is the willingness of some analysts to ignore evidence.
Consider: a report on a January 2008 meeting between a Congressional delegation and Egyptian intelligence chief Omar Suleiman notes, "The Israeli-Palestinian conflict remains the core issue; Suleiman contended a peaceful resolution would be a ‘big blow' to terrorist organizations that use the conflict as a pretext. For this reason, President Mubarak is committed to ending the Israeli-Arab ‘stalemate.'"
In a January 2007 meeting, Dubai's ruler Mohamed bin Rashid Al Makhtoum, told U.S. Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns that a peace deal between the Israelis and Palestinians would be "the best thing" for the region, and would make radical groups like Hamas "everyone's enemy."
A cable from an April 2009 meeting at the U.S. Embassy in Amman reports, "While Jordanian officials doubt dialogue with the U.S. will convince Iran to withdraw its ‘tentacles,' they believe they can be severed if Iran is deprived of hot-button issues that make it a hero to many on the Arab street, such as its championing of the Palestinian cause."
In a July 2009 meeting between Gen. Petraeus and former Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Siniora, "Siniora said that Lebanon was encouraged by and supportive of President Obama's commitment to achieving a comprehensive Middle East Peace." Siniora "said the U.S. administration's recognition of the centrality of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was an opportunity to push the Arab Peace Initiative forward and to finally achieve a resolution."
In a February 2010 meeting between Sen. John Kerry and the Emir of Qatar, "Senator Kerry asked the Emir how the U.S. goes about changing its reputation. The Emir said first and foremost the U.S. must do everything in its power to find a lasting solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict."
To be sure, these autocrats are far more concerned with shoring up, and drawing attention from, their own dictatorships than they are with some notion of "justice" for their Palestinian cousins. But while none of the foregoing suggests that "the Israeli-Palestinian dispute holds the key to regional peace" it does demonstrate that Arab leaders continue to express concern, in private as well as in public, about the regional impact of the dispute, especially as it relates to Iran's drive for influence.
"Iran is taking advantage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in order to promote its regional interests," says Israeli defense analyst and retired Colonel Shaul Arieli. "It supports Hamas in the name of Islam, which is the broadest common denominator in the Arab world."
According to Arieli, the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative -- in which the Arab states offered Israel full recognition and normalization in exchange for an end to the occupation -- was an attempt "to arrest this process" by removing a propaganda tool from Iran and other extremists. "So long as the Arab-Israeli conflict continues, Iran can [use it to] recruit."
Arieli's analysis is echoed by Iranian human rights activist Shirin Ebadi. Asked in a recent interview what the U.S. could do to help democracy in Iran, she replied that, in addition to continuing to voice support for human rights, the U.S. should "help make peace between Israelis and Palestinians."
"If there's peace between Israelis and Palestinians, the Iranian government would lose," Ebadi said. Right now, any leader who stands up for the Palestinian cause "will be a hero" in the Middle East, she said, something Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has repeatedly exploited.
It is of course true that hostility toward Israel and its U.S. patron will not simply dissipate upon the end of Israel's occupation and the creation of a Palestinian state -- the completeness of that de-occupation, and the contours of that state, matter greatly. There are also problems and pathologies in the Middle East that have nothing to do with Israelis or Palestinians. Securing a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will, however, make addressing some of those problems easier, by sealing up one well of resentment from which demagogues and extremists have for decades drawn freely and profitably.
"We don't have to like it or even believe it makes sense," wrote Ken Pollack, director of the Brookings Institution's Saban Center for Middle East Policy, in his book A Path Out of the Desert, "but linkage is a reality and one we are not likely to be able to change in the near term."
Acknowledging that reality, rather than attempting to create one's own, is an important step.
Matthew Duss is National Security Editor at the Center for American Progress