Saturday October 25, 2014
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25.10.2014
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Prof. Abraham Ben-Zvi

Linkage, Ltd.

One of the most basic tenets of U.S. foreign policy in the modern era has been the linkage theory. According to this theory, international relations can be easily shaped by technocratic procedures and sheer conviction.

This theory has had U.S. administrations from Dwight D. Eisenhower's to Barack Obama's assume a posture that is based on seemingly unrelated policies that are merged into a coherent agenda, despite their significant lack of resemblance.

Chief U.S. policymakers premised this approach on the belief that international relations comprise a mosaic of intertwined elements, and they have often tried to translate this "all the world's a stage" rationale into a comprehensive policy that is based on leverages. That was, in essence, détente. Then-Secretary of State Henry Kissinger's attempt to restrain the Soviet Union by supplying it with cheap wheat and by issuing it credit at hefty sums was one of détente's manifestations.

This approach was adopted vis-à-vis the Arab-Israeli conflict as well. Eisenhower considered his "cold shoulder" policy toward Israel a prerequisite for the Baghdad Pact, which was supposed to have the Arab world partake in the effort to contain the Soviet Union and check its potential encroachment on the Middle East.

Bill Clinton subscribed to that policy as well when he linked the Palestinian issue with his actions in the Persian Gulf. In 2009, Obama championed that policy and turned it into a fundamental part of his foreign policy apparatus. He tapped that theory when he articulated his initial foreign policy approach in this region.

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Obama believes that if the U.S. were to create a stable Middle East and forge a wide cross-Arab partnership of moderates -- which would supplant the dwindling U.S. presence -- the Palestinian issue must be addressed. Only by removing this stumbling block from the Arab world's agenda will key players such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt be able to increase their political and defense-related cooperation with Washington without undermining their stability.

But the linkage policy in this region has been a bitter disappointment. The American cold shoulder during the early Eisenhower years did not stop the USSR from setting foot in the region. The Baghdad Pact did not meet its objective and was never as big as it was supposed to be (see what happened to Egypt and Iraq). The economic incentives aimed at seducing the Soviets were an utter failure when it came to the East's activities in the Middle East and in Angola's civil war.

As for the Obama administration, even though Israel agreed to halt settlement construction in 2009 for a 10-month period, this did not help create the much-anticipated Sunni coalition. The legitimacy of the Sunni regimes in the area (and chiefly among them is Egypt) was eroded and ultimately imploded, but this was not a result of the impasse in the peace talks with the Palestinians. It was a consequence of the Arab Spring that reshuffled the deck.

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Because of the ongoing failure of linkage to merge diverging policies into one mosaic, the administration's latest attempt to offer Israel a carrot -- by supporting its traditional stance on security arrangements along the Jordan River as part of a much larger grand bargain (at least that what it sounds like) -- is likely to fade into oblivion.

It just seems divorced from reality. Why should Israel show some flexibility on the interim agreement with Iran (and on the upcoming permanent deal with Tehran still to be negotiated) in exchange for the administration's commitment to hold independent talks on the Palestinian front, in a way that takes into account Israel's security needs?

There is an inherent and fundamental contradiction in the U.S.'s desire to mitigate the threat Israel would be willing to take in the event a deal with the Palestinians materialized (including an interim deal), while at the same time "all the president's men" are trying to hammer out a deal with Iran on the basis of the current contours, which pose a much greater strategic threat against Israel.

In that regard, the key to moving ahead and breaking the impasse should be based on the inner aspects of every issue, without giving a quid pro quo or creating offsets. Otherwise, Israel might be exposed to incoming fire in an era where the U.S. is rapidly withdrawing from the Middle Eastern theater.

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