(See Update below).
Mark Perry, writing in Foreign Policy, reports that American anger at Israel’s position on settlements is driven at least in part by military concerns. By Perry’s account — a version that Pentagon and administration sources seem to be confirming rather than challenging — the change dates back to a January briefing of the Joint Chiefs of Staff by a team from CENTCOM, or Central Command, the command responsible for a region from the Middle East east to Pakistan and Kazahkstan.
“The team had been dispatched by CENTCOM commander Gen. David Petraeus to underline his growing worries at the lack of progress in resolving the issue. The 33-slide, 45-minute PowerPoint briefing stunned (Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Michael) Mullen. The briefers reported that there was a growing perception among Arab leaders that the U.S. was incapable of standing up to Israel, that CENTCOM’s mostly Arab constituency was losing faith in American promises, that Israeli intransigence on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was jeopardizing U.S. standing in the region, and that (U.S. special envoy George) Mitchell himself was (as a senior Pentagon officer later bluntly described it) “too old, too slow … and too late.”
The January Mullen briefing was unprecedented. No previous CENTCOM commander had ever expressed himself on what is essentially a political issue; which is why the briefers were careful to tell Mullen that their conclusions followed from a December 2009 tour of the region where, on Petraeus’s instructions, they spoke to senior Arab leaders. “Everywhere they went, the message was pretty humbling,” a Pentagon officer familiar with the briefing says. “America was not only viewed as weak, but its military posture in the region was eroding.”
As Perry tells it, that briefing set the stage for Vice President Joe Biden’s trip to Jerusalem; the announcement on the day of Biden’s arrival that 1,600 new apartments would be built in East Jerusalem was not the major cause of the breach, but rather the straw that broke the back of an already overstrained camel.
“But no one was more outraged than Biden who, according to the Israeli daily Yedioth Ahronoth, engaged in a private, and angry, exchange with the Israeli Prime Minister. Not surprisingly, what Biden told Netanyahu reflected the importance the administration attached to Petraeus’s Mullen briefing: “This is starting to get dangerous for us,” Biden reportedly told Netanyahu. “What you’re doing here undermines the security of our troops who are fighting in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. That endangers us and it endangers regional peace.” Yedioth Ahronoth went on to report: “The vice president told his Israeli hosts that since many people in the Muslim world perceived a connection between Israel’s actions and US policy, any decision about construction that undermines Palestinian rights in East Jerusalem could have an impact on the personal safety of American troops fighting against Islamic terrorism.” The message couldn’t be plainer: Israel’s intransigence could cost American lives.
That’s fascinating in a number of ways:
1.) As Perry notes, the stance that Petraeus took is not merely strategic but political in nature, stretching the bounds of his role. Furthermore, the general is not an impetuous sort. He thinks things through very carefully, so he no doubt understood fully the gravity of the message he was sending. That’s also why the White House in turn has taken it so seriously.
2.) “The message couldn’t be plainer: Israel’s intransigence could cost American lives.” That’s the core of the issue. Cast in those terms, the debate becomes much more difficult for the current Israeli government and for those in this country who defend Israel’s pro-settlement policies. And the fact that this message is coming from the U.S. military only compounds its impact.
3.) Reading between the lines of Perry’s piece and its later clarifications, there was a clear decision at high levels, apparently from within the Pentagon, to make this story public. If so, the leak was itself a policy decision, an effort by the military to throw itself publicly behind both the Petraeus warning and the sterner line taken in response by the Obama administration.
UPDATE: In prepared testimony before Congress today, Petraeus essentially confirmed the Foreign Policy report. Addressing what he called the “major drivers of instability, inter-state tensions, and conflict … (that) can serve as root causes of instability or as obstacles to security,” the very first one he listed was:
“Insufficient progress toward a comprehensive Middle East peace. The enduring hostilities between Israel and some of its neighbors present distinct challenges to our ability to advance our interests in the AOR. Israeli-Palestinian tensions often flare into violence and large-scale armed confrontations. The conflict foments anti-American sentiment, due to a perception of U.S. favoritism for Israel. Arab anger over the Palestinian question limits the strength and depth of U.S. partnerships with governments and peoples in the AOR and weakens the legitimacy of moderate regimes in the Arab world. Meanwhile, al-Qaeda and other militant groups exploit that anger to mobilize support. The conflict also gives Iran influence in the Arab world through its clients, Lebanese Hizballah and Hamas.”
Petraeus also pointed out that progress in Middle East peace talks could seriously weaken the power of Iran:
“A credible U.S. effort on Arab-Israeli issues that provides regional governments and populations a way to achieve a comprehensive settlement of the disputes would undercut Iran’s policy of militant “resistance,” which the Iranian regime and insurgent groups have been free to exploit. Additionally, progress on the Israel-Syria peace track could disrupt Iran’s lines of support to Hamas and Hizballah…. As such, progress toward resolving the political disputes in the Levant, particularly the Arab-Israeli conflict, is a major concern for CENTCOM.”