Chuck Hagel’s other problem

As any news junkie will tell you, former Sen. Chuck Hagel, President Barack Obama’s nominee for defense secretary, didn’t do very well at his Senate confirmation hearings last week. Our own political editor, Shmuel Rosner, not known for hyperbole, called his performance “terrible.”

Much of the criticism of Hagel has focused on past statements that put into question his commitment to Israel and to preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear bomb. Critics judged harshly his performance at the hearing, in part because he had trouble walking back some of those statements.

But as Jeffrey Goldberg noted this week in Bloomberg News, there’s one aspect of Hagel’s views that went unchallenged, and it may be the most important of all.

This is the area of “linkage” — the notion that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is inextricably linked to the rest of the problems in the Middle East.

Why is this important? Because it determines where the United States puts its priorities in the Middle East.

If you believe, for example, that solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will help you solve other problems in the region, well, guess what. You might just invest another million air miles or so trying to set up yet another “peace conference,” hoping that this time it will work.

Those air miles won’t go to solving other problems, which, in business, we call an opportunity cost.

As Goldberg writes, Hagel historically has had a clear view on linkage — he believes in it. 

Goldberg quotes Hagel in 2006: “The core of all challenges in the Middle East remains the underlying Arab-Israeli conflict. The failure to address this root cause will allow Hezbollah, Hamas and other terrorists to continue to sustain popular Muslim and Arab support — a dynamic that continues to undermine America’s standing in the region and the governments of Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and others, whose support is critical for any Middle East resolution.”

How does Hagel feel today, six years and a few revolutions later? We don’t know.

That’s too bad. Had the panel probed Hagel on this subject, it might have opened up a debate regarding the views of two even more important players: incoming Secretary of State John Kerry and President Obama.

Both Kerry and Obama have been longtime proponents of linkage.

Even in the midst of a Mideast revolution that has little to do with Israel or the Palestinians, Kerry said at a Carnegie Endowment for International Peace conference in 2011 that “continued progress toward achieving a lasting peace is the only way to guarantee Israel’s security and the stability of the region as a whole.”

This is linkage on steroids: To claim that a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians is the “only way” to guarantee the stability of a Middle East teaming with upheaval. 

When Goldberg asked Obama about this subject during the 2008 election campaign, Obama responded that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is this “constant sore” that “infect[s] all of our foreign policy.”

Judging by Kerry’s recent announcement that he plans to reignite the dormant peace process, we can only surmise that the theory of linkage is alive and well in the United States’ Mideast policy.

Why am I not jumping for joy? It’s not simply because the chances of making a peace deal at the moment are about as good as Zionist Organization of America head Mort Klein joining Peace Now.

It’s because even if the chances were halfway decent that an Israeli-Palestinian deal could be hatched, it would hardly help with the other — arguably more serious — conflicts in the Middle East.

As Goldberg writes: “The Syrian civil war? Unrelated to the Palestinian-Israeli peace process. The slow disintegration of Yemen? Unrelated. Chaos and violence in Libya? Unrelated. Chaos and fundamentalism in Egypt? The creation of a Palestinian state on the West Bank would not have stopped the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak, nor would it have stopped the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood. 

“Terrorism in Algeria? Unrelated. The Iranian nuclear program? How would the creation of a Palestinian state have persuaded the Iranian regime to cease its pursuit of nuclear weapons? Someone please explain. Sunni-Shiite civil war in Iraq? The unrest in Bahrain? Pakistani havens for al-Qaeda affiliates? All unrelated.”

In other words, linkage is a mirage.

Worse, it’s a tornado that sucks the U.S. into a bad investment of its precious foreign policy time.

I want to see peace between Israel and the Palestinians as much as anyone. But if I had to put my eggs in one basket right now, I’d put them in stopping Iran from getting a nuclear bomb. Disarming Iran would weaken the terror entities it sponsors, prevent a nuclear arms race in the region and remove a dark cloud over a Middle East that is already in the throes of instability.

It would also strengthen Israel’s ability to take risks for peace. 

Come to think of it, maybe there is linkage after all. It’s just not the linkage that Hagel, Kerry and Obama have in mind.

David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at