December 10, 2018

Killing Another Linkage

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a joint press conference REUTERS/Philippe Wojazer/Pool

You might not remember the debate about whether the road to Middle East peace ran through Jerusalem or Baghdad. In the early 1990s, U.S. Secretary of State James Baker believed that peace between Israel and Palestine was the key to solving the main problems of the Middle East. During the second Bush administration, a reverse suggestion was made — and debated: that solving the problem of Baghad would hasten a peace between Israel and the Palestinians. Time proved both theories wrong, or at least premature. Peace was not achieved, and the Middle East still has problems. Very few people still believe in a so-called “linkage.” 

Of course, peace with the Palestinians has merit, but avoiding the linkage between achieving that goal and pursuing other Middle East advances removes some of the pressures on the Israeli-Palestinian issue. The Palestinians cannot hold all other Middle East advances hostage until their issue is resolved. The world no longer lives under the illusion that Israel-Palestine peace is the first priority (more important than, say, Iranian nuclear advances). Israel is no longer blamed — at least not by serious people — for causing trouble in other areas in the region. 

With that linkage basically put aside, Israel is now aiming for the jugular of the second linkage: whether it can be legitimized in the Arab Muslim world when its conflict with the Palestinians is still an open wound.

“Israel is now aiming for the jugular of the second linkage: whether it can be legitimized in the Arab Muslim world when its conflict with the Palestinians is still an open wound.”

Egypt was the first country to erode this linkage when it signed a peace agreement with Israel (with provisions aimed at advancing a solution for the Palestinians). Jordan likewise signed a peace agreement with Israel in the early 1990s, when Israel and the Palestinians seemed for a while as if they were moving toward resolution. 

The situation today is much changed. It is clear that Israelis and Palestinians are not moving toward peace. It is also clear that when Arab Muslim countries get closer to Israel that they are not doing it because of the Palestinian issue but rather in spite of it. They are doing it because they have other priorities — concerns about Iran; economic or technological needs Israel can satisfy; or political needs that can be addressed through Israel’s ties in Washington. 

Relations with Persian Gulf countries have improved. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu recently visited Oman, and there is now talk about an upcoming visit to Bahrain. Relations with Saudi Arabia are of great importance to both countries. And then there is Africa, where Israel is slowly edging toward renewing relations with more countries. 

On Nov. 25, the president of Chad, Idriss Déby, visited Israel. Chad is a poor, corrupt country in the middle of Africa that is plagued by political violence and ranked very high on the failed-state index. Déby has dealt with rebellions and coups d’état attempts since he first became president in 1990. Chad has little to contribute to Israel — except on the issue of linkage. It has a small Muslim majority, and in the early 1970s, it severed ties with Israel under pressure from Saudi Arabia, Libya and other Arab countries in an attempt by the Arab world to keep Israel illegitimate. (President Déby was highly influenced by former Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi.)

Now that the second linkage seems to be dying, or maybe is dead, the Palestinians are no doubt following this process with apprehension. It takes away one of the key tools they used in their battle with Israel: the power of the Arab Muslim world to put pressure on the Jewish State. For Israel, it’s a triumph. It carries the hope that the Palestinians will finally realize that time is not necessarily on their side. It also carries a certain risk: Israel might be tempted to forget the Palestinians. But while Chad is far away, the Palestinians, with or without the support of Arab Muslim countries, still live in Israel.


Shmuel Rosner is senior political editor. For more analysis of Israeli and international politics, visit Rosner’s Domain at jewishjournal.com/rosnersdomain.