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Monday, March 15, 2010

Watershed in U.S.-Israeli relations

David Petraeus, John McCain's favorite general and a registered Republican, delivers a stunner, as reported in Foreign Policy.
On Jan. 16, two days after a killer earthquake hit Haiti, a team of senior military officers from the U.S. Central Command (responsible for overseeing American security interests in the Middle East), arrived at the Pentagon to brief Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Michael Mullen on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. 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 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 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." 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. [...]

The Mullen briefing and Petraeus's request hit the White House like a bombshell. While Petraeus's request that CENTCOM be expanded to include the Palestinians was denied ("it was dead on arrival," a Pentagon officer confirms), the Obama administration decided it would redouble its efforts -- pressing Israel once again on the settlements issue, sending Mitchell on a visit to a number of Arab capitals and dispatching Mullen for a carefully arranged meeting with the chief of the Israeli General Staff, Lt. General Gabi Ashkenazi. While the American press speculated that Mullen's trip focused on Iran, the JCS Chairman actually carried a blunt, and tough, message on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: that Israel had to see its conflict with the Palestinians "in a larger, regional, context" -- as having a direct impact on America's status in the region. Certainly, it was thought, Israel would get the message.

Israel didn't. When Vice President Joe Biden was embarrassed by an Israeli announcement that the Netanyahu government was building 1,600 new homes in East Jerusalem, the administration reacted. 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.
AIPAC brought out its heavy artillery this weekend, condemning the Obama administration for daring to take issue with Bibi Netanyahu's extremist coalition. But as Spencer Ackerman notes, Petraeus' move changes everything:
Foreign Policy’s reporter on the piece, Mark Perry, places Petraeus’ briefing in the context of the message from Vice President Biden and Secretary Clinton that Israeli recklessness and intransigence over settlement expansion is both humiliating and actively dangerous for the United States. I have no idea how Perry got this piece. But the sheer fact that it appears this weekend will be interpreted as an “or else” by the Israelis. That is, Israel will view the Obama team telling them: "If you keep this shit up, you might find themselves getting crosswise with Gen. Petraeus, who might in turn suddenly find himself with a train-and-equip mission in the West Bank and who knows what next. How far do you want to push us? And if you think about counter-pressuring us, ask yourself: who’s a stronger force in American politics– AIPAC or the U.S. military? I don’t think it’s in either of our interests to put this to the test."
Israel is a solid American ally, but a handful of extreme religious parties that represent just 20% of Israel's electorate simply do not have the right to determine U.S. foreign policy. AIPAC was unwise to align itself with a small minority of Israel's polity, against the U.S. military.

Tom Friedman notes:
The vice president missed a chance to send a powerful public signal: He should have snapped his notebook shut, gotten right back on Air Force Two, flown home and left the following scribbled note behind: “Message from America to the Israeli government: Friends don’t let friends drive drunk. And right now, you’re driving drunk. You think you can embarrass your only true ally in the world, to satisfy some domestic political need, with no consequences? You have lost total contact with reality. Call us when you’re serious. We need to focus on building our country.”
Biden, it turned out, didn't need to. As Ackerman notes: "You can also just let your mind reel at the cognitive dissonance Petraeus’ (alleged!) move will cause on the right." Indeed. That unified voice from the right, center (Hillary) and center-left (Biden) of the world of U.S. security policy is what made this week in US-Israeli relations one of the most pivotal in years.

UPDATE: The real question, of course, is whether the Obama Administration will succeed in getting Bibi to ditch the religious parties in favor of a national unity coalition with Kadima, which would permit him some flexibility in international relations and the ability to just say no on new religious settlments. If the Petraeus/Clinton/Biden trio forces his hand, this would be one of the hugest foreign policy victories for an American government since God knows when.

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