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Arab Opinion On Palestine Can’t Be Willed Away

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"Arab Opinion On Palestine Can’t Be Willed Away"

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Writing in today’s Washington Times, Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon offers the latest entry in the never-ending effort by Israeli and American conservatives to downplay the significance of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict:

The last few weeks and months have finally proven the fallacy of one of the most mistaken theories about development and peace in the Middle East. For a number of years, foreign officials, experts and commentators have claimed that if the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was solved, then there would be peace in the Middle East. This was coined “linkage.” [...]

The WikiLeaks revelations proved that among Arab decision makers and policy-shapers, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was fairly low on the list of urgent priorities in the region. These private conversations reveal that Arab leaders are preoccupied with the looming threat of Iran and only make perfunctory statements on the “Palestinian question,” as one senior American diplomat who has spent his career in the Middle East told the New York Times recently.

These revelations shook the linkage argument to its very foundations, but recent events in our region have dealt it the mortal blow.

In keeping with the rules of this genre, Ayalon’s presentation of the linkage argument is an obvious straw man. No one has ever claimed “if the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was solved, then there would be peace in the Middle East.”

The actual linkage argument was probably best articulated by Gen. David Petraeus in his statement (pdf) to Congress last March, in which he cited “Insufficient progress toward a comprehensive Middle East peace” as one of the key challenges to security and stability 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]. Israeli-Palestinian tensions often flare into violence and large-scale armed confrontations. The conflict foments anti-American sentiment, due to a perception of U.S. favoritism for Israel. 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. Meanwhile, 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.

As I showed in an article for Foreign Policy, Ayalon’s claim about WikiLeaks is simply false. In fact, the WikiLeaks documents revealed Arab leaders bringing up the Palestinian issue with almost as much frequency as Iran. Read the statements for yourself and decide whether they seem “perfunctory.”

Speaking at Israel’s Herzliya Conference earlier this month, just days before Mubarak fell, Israeli opposition leader Tzipi Livni herself endorsed the linkage argument. “I do not believe Israel is the source of extremism in region,” Livni said, “but the conflict has influenced both existing peace agreements with our neighbors, and impacted our ability to change reality in region”:

We don’t have border conflicts with Egypt and Jordan, but this is a cold peace. It is a cold peace because of the linkage between the conflict and our relationship with these countries… These governments have had to cope with hostile public opinion because of the conflict.

Speaking later, NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen similarly stressed the significance of the conflict. “The [Israeli-Palestinian] conflict is not the only problem in the region,” Rasmussen said, “but it constitutes a major impediment to addressing other issues that threaten regional stability.”

According to Ayalon, this is all delusion. To better understand where Ayalon is coming from, it’s probably good to keep in mind that he argues that the West Bank isn’t really occupied.

As for what the ongoing uprisings mean for the salience of the conflict among Arabs, you’ll notice that after Ayalon asserts that they’ve dealt linkage a “mortal blow,” he offers no evidence for this. Honestly, I’m continually baffled by this bizarre, almost religiously fervent belief among some conservatives that Arab publics only care about the Palestinian issue because Arab despots have poisoned their minds with propaganda about it. While it’s of course true that Arab demagogues have tended to cynically stoke resentment over the issue to divert anger from their own failures, the reason this is effective is because Arab publics genuinely care about the Palestinian issue. Osama bin Laden may or may not actually care about it when he mentions it in his fatwas, but that’s actually irrelevant. He knows that his target audience does.

Virtually every scrap of polling data on Arab public opinion confirms this. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not usually rated the most pressing issue, but it’s one that continues to be very important among Arab publics. In my view, it’s very similar, actually, to the way that many Americans identify with and care about Israel, even if it’s only a top issue for a very small, committed minority. It doesn’t seem that hard to understand. It’s both odd and a little sad that we have this handful of American and Israeli conservatives who seem to believe that if they will it, linkage will become a dream. But, as Rashid Khalidi and Fouad Ajami both suggest in articles today — and there’s really not a lot on which you’ll fine these two gentlemen agreeing — if the Palestinian issue complicated Israel’s relationships with the dictators of the region, forming relationships with governments that are actually representative will only be more so. Imagining that their 60-year conflict with the Palestinians might simply decline into a non-issue is an illusion of which responsible Israeli leaders would do quite well to rid themselves.

Update

Yousef Manayyer, Executive Director of the Palestine Center, also had an item last week noting the continuing salience of the Palestinian issue in the region.

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