The Israeli government’s blindsiding of Joe Biden last week seems to have given rise to the crisis that won’t go away. Or perhaps it’s more accurate to say it has uncovered fault lines between the US and Israel that have apparently been simmering now for some time.
Amid the myriad of press reports on the disastrous Biden visit, for me the most eye-opening were the Israeli press reports of Biden’s private excoriation of his hosts:
People who heard what Biden said were stunned. “This is starting to get dangerous for us,” Biden castigated his interlocutors. “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.”
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.
If that report wasn’t sobering enough, now there’s word that CENTCOM commander General David Petraeus feels the same way. Mark Perry, posting on Foreign Policy, has reported that Gen. Petraeus briefed Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Michael Mullen on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict back in January:
The 33-slide, 45-minute PowerPoint briefing stunned 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…
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.” But Petraeus wasn’t finished: two days after the Mullen briefing, Petraeus sent a paper to the White House requesting that the West Bank and Gaza (which, with Israel, is a part of the European Command — or EUCOM), be made a part of his area of operations. Petraeus’s reason was straightforward: with U.S. troops deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. military had to be perceived by Arab leaders as engaged in the region’s most troublesome conflict.
Wow. “Stunning” and “unprecedented” are the right words. When was the last time we heard the US military claim that Israeli policy was putting their troops in danger?
It’s much too early to tell where all this will lead, but I think its safe to say that the “special relationship” between the US and Israel is currently under serious reevaluation. It’s particularly mind-boggling to contemplate that Petraeus seems to share the same conclusion as the much-maligned Walt and Mersheimer: that Israel’s policies represent a strategic liability to US interests in the Mideast. Who would have thought?
There are important and powerful lobbies in America: the NRA, the American Medical Association, the lawyers — and the Israeli lobby. But no lobby is as important, or as powerful, as the U.S. military. While commentators and pundits might reflect that Joe Biden’s trip to Israel has forever shifted America’s relationship with its erstwhile ally in the region, the real break came in January, when David Petraeus sent a briefing team to the Pentagon with a stark warning: America’s relationship with Israel is important, but not as important as the lives of America’s soldiers. Maybe Israel gets the message now.
I’m not particularly a fan of US military adventures in the Middle East – but if it takes the US military to convey the message that Israel has to turn from its disastrous settlement policies, I’m all for it.