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.