This is the sort of message that if you summarized it from the topline — “important military figure hears from Arab leaders that entrenched Israeli-Palestinian conflict damages U.S. credibility” — would be thoroughly uncontroversial. It’s the sort of thing that everyone in the foreign policy community knows, accepts and seethes at when the alleged-friends-of-Israel try to make it beyond the pale of discussion. So don’t be surprised that Gen. David Petraeus would brief Adm. Mike Mullen, as Foreign Policy reports that he did in December, about “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.”
What’s more noteworthy is that Petraeus would consider it a military problem — and his military problem. For background: Central Command, which Petraeus helms, is responsible for all U.S. military forces in and security relationships with the Middle East and South Asia. Except for Israel. European Command (which is dual-hatted with the NATO military command) has the Israel portfolio. That’s for a variety of diplomatic sensibilities, all of which reduce to “it’s not worth the headache of getting Central Command embroiled in the Arab-Israeli conflict.”
Petraeus apparently wanted the headache. Put differently, according to Foreign Policy, he recognized that it doesn’t make any sense for the senior U.S. military commander with responsibilities for the Middle East not to be involved in the number-one security problem in the Middle East. And so — I should mention I can’t vouch for this report’s accuracy; but wow — Petraeus recommended giving Central Command responsibility for the West Bank and Gaza. In the real world, that’s a sensible recommendation. In the world refracted through the prism of a conflict that makes everyone who encounters it more than a little irrational, it was never ever going to be adopted, because it opens the door for American military involvement in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which is a taboo subject (until it isn’t). And so it wasn’t.
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.
You can also just let your mind reel at the cognitive dissonance Petraeus’ (alleged!) move will cause on the right. First he’s against torture and for the closure of Guantanamo and now he opens the door to an American military involvement in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It’s a real good thing he doesn’t want anyone’s presidential nomination…