Copernicus and America’s Blame Israel Problem

“Israel is not what is wrong about the Middle East. Israel is what is right about the Middle East.”

Prussian astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus was a rebel and he knew it. Well aware how theologically radical and politically mutinous his ideas on heliocentrism were, he equivocated as to whether he should publish them. When he did so in 1543, he acknowledged his expected ostracism in a letter to the Pope: “when I considered in my own mind how absurd a performance it must seem to those who know that the judgment of many centuries has approved the view that the Earth remains fixed as center in the midst of the heavens, if I should, on the contrary, assert that the Earth moves; I was for a long time at a loss to know whether I should publish the commentaries which I have written in proof of its motion.” Whatever hesitation he might have had in launching an assault on the Catholic Church’s monopoly on scientific thought, he persevered. Shortly before his death, he published his seminal Revolutions of the Heavenly Bodies, asserting that the sun, not the earth, was at the center of the universe around which all other celestial bodies revolved.

To judge from Secretary of State John Kerry’s October comments linking Israeli actions to ISIS’ potency, a similar canon beguiles the Western understanding of the Middle East. In unscripted remarks in mid-October, Kerry recounted how his Arab interlocutors implored him “to try to get peace between Israel and the Palestinians, because it was a cause of recruitment and of street anger and agitation that they felt – and I see a lot of heads nodding – they had to respond to. And people need to understand the connection of that.”

Kerry’s comments indeed caused an uproar, but they were hardly novel. America’s preeminent diplomat was merely vocalizing what many have called “linkage theory,” a catchall assumption that places the Palestinian-Israeli conflict at the center of the Middle East’s universe. To carry the thesis to its natural conclusion—it’s doubtful Kerry meant that Arabs were “agitated” to join ISIS by Hamas’ targeting of Israeli civilians—linkage theorizes that somehow Israel’s actions in Gaza or in the West Bank were spurring Muslims across the globe to join the Islamic State. As Israeli Economy Minister Naftali Bennett acerbically put it, “even when a British Muslim beheads a British Christian, someone will always blame the Jew.”

Much like geocentrism did to the Catholic Church, linkage has taken hold of the Western mindset about the Middle East. Kerry is not the first, nor will he be the last, senior American official to espouse it. As historian Martin Kramer has carefully catalogued, linkage, which he deems a “myth,” has permeated deep into the American foreign policy establishment. Almost reflexively, Washington time and again insists that not only is the Palestinian-Israeli conflict the core conflict, but that the region’s many other ills gyrate around it. Trapped in its orbit, all the region’s other ills are either caused or exacerbated by the continued irresolution of the Palestine question.

In fact, Kerry’s latest contention fits neatly into the exegesis of the Obama administration. In near verbatim terms in 2008, then-Senator Obama opined that the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, “this constant wound, that this constant sore, does infect all of our foreign policy. The lack of a resolution to this problem provides an excuse for anti-American militant jihadists to engage in inexcusable actions.” Not only would resolving it produce fewer jihadis, but, according to the future president, it “will also weaken Iran” and “maybe at the same time peeling Syria out of the Iranian orbit, that makes it easier to isolate Iran so that they have a tougher time developing a nuclear weapon.” The whole Middle East, the future president riffed, could be transformed if only there were peace between Arabs and Jews in the Holy Land.

Obama cabinet members have gone further. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warned that “for Israel to get the kind of strong support it's looking for vis-a-vis Iran it can't stay on the sideline with respect to the Palestinian and the peace efforts, that they go hand-in-hand.” Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel compared the conflict to “like a stone dropped into a placid lake, its ripples extend out farther and farther. Egypt, Syria, Jordan, and Lebanon feel the effects most noticeably. Farther still, Afghanistan and Pakistan; anything that impacts their political stability also affects the two emerging economic superpowers, India and China.” Iranian centrifuges and the stability of the whole Indo-Pacific order, according to the Obama administration, seems to spin around apartments built in Jerusalem suburbs.

Enter the Israeli Copernicus: Benjamin Netanyahu. Like his Prussian predecessor, Netanyahu is an iconoclast, not only assailing the dominant dogma, but also inverting it. Like Copernicus, Netanyahu rejects the dominant conventional wisdom, arguing, as he did in a speech before Congress several years ago, “Israel is not what is wrong about the Middle East. Israel is what is right about the Middle East.” As the U.S.-Israeli alliance navigates some of its roughest seas in decades, it is this fundamental difference that colors nearly all of its facets. As long as the Obama administration acts as if the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is the region’s nerve center, it will conflict with Netanyahu’s attempt to debunk that very assumption.

Netanyahu addressed those who believe in Palestine primo, Iran secondo, directly. “Our best efforts to reach Palestinian-Israeli peace,” Netanyahu said late last year, “will come to nothing if Iran succeeds in building atomic bombs. A nuclear-armed Iran would give even greater backing to the radical and terrorist elements in the region. It would undermine the chances of arriving at a negotiated peace.” Similarly, a the UN in September, Netanyahu stated: “many have long assumed that an Israeli-Palestinian peace can help facilitate a broader rapprochement between Israel and the Arab World. But these days I think it may work the other way around: Namely that a broader rapprochement between Israel and the Arab world may help facilitate an Israeli-Palestinian peace.” By arguing that an end to the Iranian nuclear threat and a greater Arab rapprochement with Israel would help Israelis and Palestinians make peace, Bibi, like Copernicus, is calling for an astronomical reorientation of America’s Middle East policy, an appeal to eulogize and bury the conventional wisdom that the Middle East orbits around the Arab-Israeli conflict.

And, much like Copernicus, Netanyahu has historical evidence on his side. Peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan were concluded irrespective of the Palestinian issue and yet those treaties themselves have done little to stem the rise of Islamic fundamentalism or Iranian nuclear aspirations. More recently, the disorder spawned by the Arab revolts has revealed how Judeo-absent the region’s problems truly are. As the respected Arab journalist Hisham Melhem recounts, “it was fascinating to attend a two day conference about the Middle East in times of upheaval in which Israel was mostly ignored, with the only frontal criticism of her policies delivered by an American diplomat.” Even as Middle Easterners are preoccupied with many other problems, it is America who insists on the centrality of the Israeli-Palestinian question.

This summer’s Gaza War was emblematic of the new Copernican reality. Although it dominated the headlines and consumed the energies of Western diplomats, it barely registered in a region absorbed by disorder. Whereas Europe saw its largest bout of anti-Semitic attacks in over a decade, there were few noticeable protests in the Arab world. Moreover, the operation did not pause the inter-communal killing amongst Sunnis and Shiites in order to take on the common Zionist foe. Whereas Israel’s rebirth in 1948 prompted seven Arab armies to attack the Jewish State, this summer’s war was the most localized ever. Even Hezbollah, another organization dedicate to Israel’s destruction, kept a lid on its actions, as its interests have become more intertwined with the Syrian conflict. If anything, the tumult of the last four years has demonstrated without a doubt that the region does not have one conflict but many, and that while some are related to each other, none orbit Israel.

Copernicus died shortly after publishing his heresy, but not before using his work to explicitly provoke the Catholic Church. He published his work in Latin, the Church’s lingua franca, and dedicated his work to Pope Paul III. With chutzpah, Copernicus wrote, “those things which I am saying now may be obscure, yet they will be made clearer in their proper place.” Indeed they were. Although it took several centuries, including the infamous trial of Galileo, the Catholic Church eventually relented. Geocentrism was quietly euthanized, viewed as a quaint concept whose time had past. The Copernican Revolution had succeeded and set Europe on an enlightened path.

Perhaps a similar revolution to America’s Judeocentric view of the Middle East will also spark a much-needed regional reformation. And, to be fair, at times, Washington has acknowledged the veracity of the heretic’s assault. At the UN, President Obama derided the notion of linkage saying, “the situation in Iraq and Syria and Libya should cure anybody of the illusion that the Arab-Israeli conflict is the main source of problems in the region.” Resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict will not stop Iran’s nuclear drive, or reverse Saudi Arabia’s ban on churches, or end ISIS’ enslavement of Yazidis. Yet, moments later, Obama acknowledged that a two-state solution would make the whole world “more safe,” perhaps implying that it would do exactly that.

With elections in the offing, Netanyahu, like Copernicus, may not be around to reap the rewards of his revolution. However, even as the Israeli premier continues to defy U.S. pressure, America’s Arab allies seem to be edging closer to Israel as they too believe that the administration has misunderstood the region’s celestial mechanics. Whereas the Catholic Church was forced to accept Copernicus’ truths out of weakness, the United States has the opportunity to reorient its approach while it is still strong. Disabused of the notion that Israel is the sun around which region’s myriad of problems revolve, the United States could jettison the lenses of linkage and recast its policy appropriately.

Gabriel Scheinmann is the Director of Policy at The Jewish Policy Center and a Doctoral Candidate at Georgetown University.

Image: Official White House Photo by Pete Souza​