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AYALON: The death of ‘linkage’

Palestinian issue was never the key to stability

- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 24, 2011

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."

Former President Jimmy Carter was once asked, "Is the linkage policy right?" He replied, "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." Another enthusiast of linkage is former U.S. National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, who said, "The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the single most combustible and galvanizing issue in the Arab world."

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.

Last year, the United Nations Development Program released its Human Development Report for Arab states with the assistance of Arab scholars and researchers. This report stated that the Arab world is lacking in all areas of human development, such as freedom, empowerment of women and education. In addition, nearly 50 percent of the Arab world lives below the international poverty line. For the Arab world to merely maintain its current position, which is at the lowest rung on the development ladder, it will need to create 51 million jobs in the next 10 years.

Food insecurity, rising desertification and vanishing water resources have all contributed to placing parts of the Arab world on a precipice. The recent chaos on the streets of capitals in the Arab world demonstrates this volatility.

Furthermore, the linkage argument has allowed a dereliction of responsibility for anything that happens outside of Israel's few square kilometers, which is equivalent to less than one seven-hundredth of the Arab world. Even the term "Middle East conflict" is negligent in that it stresses the singularity and uniqueness of our conflict, perhaps even one of the least bloody and destructive, in a region that has seen dozens of recent and ongoing conflicts.

In fact, of the 11 million Muslims that have been killed in violent conflicts since the middle of the last century when the state of Israel was created, less than one-tenth of 1 percent of Muslims were killed in the context of the Israeli-Palestinian or Israeli-Arab conflict. However, more than 90 percent of all Muslims killed during the same time period were killed by fellow Muslims.

While I am sure that the majority of the residents of the Middle East, including Israelis, would desperately like to see peace between Israel and the Palestinians, unfairly overloading the pressure to sign a peace agreement makes it that much harder.

Precisely those who feel that a utopian Middle East will exist after Israeli and Palestinian leader sign their name on a piece of paper demonstrate a lack of understanding of the issues at stake and make it harder for the conflict to be resolved.

Unfortunately, radical elements in our region will remain long after the ink on any agreement has dried. To fully grasp this, we just need to listen to the radical elements themselves. In 1996, al Qaeda rose to prominence with Osama bin Laden's fatwa or "declaration of war." The long, rambling fatwa stood at more than 11,000 words, railing against everything deemed unacceptable to his brand of militant Islam. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict barely appeared and was nothing more than a footnote to all the general grievances laid out by bin Laden.

While Israelis, including this Israeli government, desire a peace agreement with all of our neighbors, it cannot come at the cost of our existence. Recent events have only confirmed to Israel that we live in a tough neighborhood with constantly shifting sands. If Israel signs a peace agreement, it needs to know that it is permanent, stable and secure, and not subject to changing circumstances.

Israel, with a narrow waist of only a few kilometers, can afford to take few chances with the security of its population, the majority of which reside a mere RPG launcher away from the Green Line.

Those espousing linkage ignore the reality beyond Israel's borders. Recent events have brought the true nature of challenges facing the Middle East to international attention. Let us hope that this wider view will at least prove constructive to meeting those challenges, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict can return to its proper perspective to improve the possibility of its resolution.

Danny Ayalon is Israel's deputy minister of foreign affairs.

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