The Linkage Between the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict and Iran


During the 2016 Presidential election, Donald J. Trump asserted that resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would constitute the “greatest deal of all time.” Once elected, President Trump restated his commitment in helping to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But, if past is prologue, the attempt will likely fail. After all, previous attempts at a peaceful solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have dogged U.S. presidents since Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Solutions to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have been complicated by the linkage between the Islamic Republic of Iran and its support of Palestinian terror groups, notably Hezbollah. If the Trump Administration is serious about having even a chance at successfully ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, then it must first deal a crippling blow to the Iranians. Should the Trump Administration delink the peaceful resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from checking the larger Iranian threat, then its Israeli-Palestinian policy will ultimately fail.

Former U.S. Ambassador Dennis Ross and international relations scholar, David Markovsky, wrote in 2009 that the idea of linkage was one of America’s greatest “policy myths” that has “kept the [the United States] from making real progress in the Middle East.” They define linkage as, “the idea that if only the Palestinian conflict were solved all other Middle East conflicts would melt away.” And, while their critique on the concept of linkage—that resolving it will end America’s woes in the region—is fair, their idea of trying to isolate the Israeli-Palestinian conflict away from the region is also misguided.

Fact is, Israel’s unpopular counterterrorism policy is the direct result of the actual threat that terror groups, such as Hezbollah (and their political arm, Hamas) pose. In fact, Hezbollah is likely the single-greatest terrorist group that currently threatens Israel. Thanks to Hezbollah, those Israelis and Palestinians who do seek a peaceful solution to their conflict are held hostage by the militant radicals, and the conflict is kept permanently frozen in place.

Also, no matter how many military victories Israel has against Hezbollah, the fact will remain that without American assistance, neither Hezbollah nor Hamas will be defeated. The reason is because Hezbollah and Hamas’ true power resides in the generous support provided by its chief benefactor, Iran. As long as Iran funds, trains, and supports Hezbollah; so long as Iran continues providing the ideological justification for Palestinian terror, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will continue unabated—irrespective of whether the U.S. intervenes.

The Trump Administration should spend the next several months galvanizing support for the creation of a pan-Arab alliance, specifically aimed at curbing the Iranian threat before engaging in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process directly. Traditionally, the Sunni Arab powers have supported the Palestinian cause. However, the only thing that most Sunni Arab leaders fear more than a Jewish state in the Middle East, is a potentially-nuclear armed Shiite hegemon in the region.

After all, without Iranian support, Hezbollah and Hamas will be weakened. With the continued military pressure placed on Hezbollah by Israel, their threat could be mollified. For its part, with the existential Iranian threat removed, the Israeli government could begin standing down on some of its harder line policies toward the Palestinians. While it is unlikely that Palestinian radicalism would evaporate with the successful containment of Iran, it is likely that such a threat would be made far more manageable for the militarily superior Israelis. With the threat of Palestinian terror greatly reduced, the Israeli government could more effectively rein in the settlers, who continue agitating the Palestinians with their presence. Under such conditions, the prospects for real peace between the Israelis and Palestinians would be higher than they’ve been in decades.

Of course, any linkage policy is fraught with geopolitical dangers for the U.S. and domestic political risks for the Trump Administration. The top three dangers that I can foresee would be greater U.S. military involvement in Syria; the risk of a wider war with Russia; and the potentiality of U.S. forces invading Iran. Regarding Syria, any attempt at rolling back Iranian regional influence would likely entail taking greater military action against Bashar al-Assad. This, then, could potentially galvanize Russia to come to the aid of both its Syrian and Iranian clients. Lastly, the only way to truly mollify the Iranian threat in the near-term would likely be regime change through preemptive military action.

These three possibilities, and the greater time and commitment that such a regional solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would require, are likely to turn the Trump Administration off to a linkage strategy. However, should President Trump take the direct approach of only addressing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, his peace attempt will be dead on arrival. In order for the peace process to work, the Trump Administration will have to drain the swamp of terrorism that undergirds the Palestinian opposition to peace. That terrorism is almost exclusively the result of foreign support, specifically from Iran. Ending the Iranian threat will make peace in the Mideast possible. But, it will neither be cheap nor guaranteed. Thus, the Administration should think long and hard before rushing into the morass that is the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

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Delinking the peace process from the wider regional concerns will lead to a failed policy. Such failure would embolden America’s adversaries and damage American credibility around the world. Closer to home, for the Trump Administration, such a failure would further weaken the besieged Trump Administration and discredit its ability to lead in foreign policy.

Unless President Trump is willing to fully commit to the Mideast by embracing a long-term strategy of linkage, the Administration should discontinue any efforts to bring peace to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

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