In the wake of Vice President Joe Biden’s embarrassing trip to Israel, a more important story has been sadly overlooked. Mark Perry writes about it in Foreign Policy though: General David Petraeus’ request that the Palestinian territories be placed under his Central Command.
Petraeus assumed command of USCENTCOM in October 2008, the Unified Combatant Command responsible for the Middle East and parts of Central Asia. Israel, Gaza and the West Bank all fall under the European Command which formerly, from a Mediterranean perspective, made some sense. Now that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has become so interwoven with Middle Eastern strategy however, it would be far more practical to consider it part of the same theater not only politically, but militarily as well.
In a briefing of Admiral Michael Mullen, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Petraeus had a team of his senior officers make this argument last January, adding that there was a growing perception among Arab leaders that the United States were reluctant to stand up to Israel. Indeed, the Obama Administration’s credibility in the region has diminished already with evidently little understanding of Israel’s interests.
According to Perry, the briefing was unprecedented. “No previous CENTCOM commander had ever expressed himself on what is essentially a political issue.” Though bold, it’s a smart move.
Petraeus’ own experiences in Iraq taught him that with American forces deployed in two Middle Eastern states, its military has to be recognized by Arab leaders as being fully engaged with the region’s most troublesome of conflicts.
His request appears to have been denied, at least so far. Part of the reason is that the European Command is wary of letting its already waning influence dilute further. But the administration did take his warning seriously, dispatching George Mitchell to speak words of reassurance in various Arab capitals and having Admiral Mullen confer with his Israeli counterpart, Lieutenant General Gabi Ashkenazi in February. He conveyed the message that Israel must see its quarrel with the Palestinians “in a larger, regional context” — in other words: as affecting American foreign policy in the entire Middle East.
It may appear that Israel didn’t get the message, announcing the construction of some 1,600 new homes in northern Jerusalem just as the vice president came to visit the country. Biden was outraged and with him, much of the American media. Privately, he is supposed to have told Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that, “This is starting to get dangerous for us.”
Israel’s settlement construction, noted Biden, “undermines the security of our troops who are fighting in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan” while it “endangers regional peace.”
The Israelis say that the building of the Jerusalem houses were part of a “routine decision” but that, actually, doesn’t matter much. More pressing is that Biden’s fury puts the Israelis in a tough spot.
As far as the Netanyahu government is concerned, Israel has repeatedly shown itself willing to compromise. It withdrew from Gaza entirely and threatened to use force against unauthorized settlement activity in the West Bank last year. But the Obama Administration demanded a full freeze in settlement construction before peace talks could be resumed. Unsurprisingly, the Palestinians were quick to adopt the same position, leaving neither side in a position to negotiate.
The prime minister’s current predicament forces him to either relinquish, symbolically, Israel’s sovereignty over what it considers to be its capital or leave his country’s relation with the United States further strained. American commentators may blame Netanyahu for his “arrogance” but the truth is that the Obama Administration’s policy in recent months leaves him with very few options.
At the same time, Israeli-Palestinian policy ought to be considered within the spectrum of Middle Eastern strategy on the whole for the plight of the Palestinian people and the United States’ relation with Israel remain a matter of great concern with many Arab states. Outright bickering between both allies does neither any good however nor does it inspire much confidence in America’s ability at bringing peace to the region.
If the administration truly intends to advance the peace process, it must do more than dispatch an envoy and ask only Israel to give in. Although traditionally one of America’s staunchest of allies, Israel, like any country, will put its own interests first. Expecting otherwise would be unrealistic. The president must find a way to make it worthwhile for Israel to follow his lead.