Why does Barack Obama focus so much on Israel and its struggle with the Arabs?
It's not just that he's spending days in Israel this week, but his disproportionate four-year search to solve the Arab-Israeli conflict. His first full day as president in 2009 saw him appointing George Mitchell as special envoy for the Middle East and also telephoning the leaders of Israel, Egypt, Jordan, and the Palestinian Authority. The White House press secretary justified this surprising emphasis by saying that Obama used his first day in office "to communicate his commitment to active engagement in pursuit of Arab-Israeli peace from the beginning of his term." A few days later, Obama granted his first formal interview as president to Al-Arabiya television channel.
Hisham Melhem, Washington bureau chief for Al Arabiya, snagged the first sit-down interview with Obama as president.
Why this fixation on the Arab-Israeli conflict, which ranks only 49th in fatalities since World War II? Because of a strange belief mainly on the Left, rarely stated overtly, that this issue is key not just to the Middle East but to world problems.
For an unusually frank statement of this viewpoint, called linkage, note the spontaneous, awkward comments of James L. Jones, then Obama's national security adviser, in Oct. 2009. Addressing J Street, he mentioned "pursuing peace between Israel and her neighbors" and continued:
Of all the problems the administration faces globally, that if there was one problem that I would recommend to the president that if he could do anything he wanted to solve one problem, this would be it. Finding a solution to this problem has ripples that echo, that would run globally and affect many other problems that we face elsewhere in the globe. The reverse is not true. This is the epicenter, and this is where we should focus our efforts. And I am delighted that this administration is doing so with such enthusiasm and commitment.
James L. Jones addressing J Street.
Although delivered a year before the Arab uprising, this statement is worth parsing because it provides an important insight into the White House worldview.
Solving the Arab-Israeli conflict would "affect many other problems that we face elsewhere in the globe." Jones implies that the conflict's continuation exacerbates those problems. In one sense, his point is trite: of course, ending any conflict improves the overall atmosphere. But it staggers the imagination to think that the White House awaits resolution on Jerusalem and Palestine refugees to handle Kurdish restlessness, Islamist assaults, Syrian civil insurrection, Iranian nuclear ambitions, Egyptian economic travails, and Yemeni anarchy.
"The reverse is not true." Why would solving other problems not ameliorate the Arab-Israeli conflict? No proof backs up this blithe, illogical drivel. Defeating Islamism, obviously, would indeed help resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict, as would deflecting the Iranian bomb.
"This is the epicenter." In 2009, the Islamist surge had already riven the Middle East into Iranian- and Saudi-led cold war blocs: Israel and the Palestinians were not then or now the regional center. Arguably, Iran, Turkey or Saudi Arabia is.
"This is where we should focus our efforts." Here we get to the nub: Jones wants a focus on housing in Jerusalem and electricity grids in the West Bank rather than on stopping the Iranian nuclear program, assuring oil and gas supplies, dealing with the pattern of dictatorships vs. Islamist insurgencies, or dealing with the increasingly rogue government of Turkey.
Some people still see Jerusalem as the center, or epicenter, of the world.
At least Jones did not make the outlandish and borderline antisemitic claim that Israel is responsible for all problems in the Middle East; but his milder version of this canard is no less bone-headed. His analysis, sadly, neatly fits the anti-Zionist mentality that increasingly pervades the left wing of the Democratic party.
To understand Obama's visit to Israel, the next four years, and European Union diplomacy, keep this strange and contorted logic in mind.
Mr. Pipes (DanielPipes.org) is president of the Middle East Forum. © 2013 by Daniel Pipes. All rights reserved.
July 25, 2013 update: I pursue this topic at "Further on the Arab-Israeli Linkage Theory."
Aug. 4, 2013 update: A weblog entry, "Arguing against Israeli as the Key to the Middle East," records important arguments against this "linkage" theory.