What General David Petraeus said in his testimony before the Senate’s Armed Services Committee on March 16, and the manner in which his statement was quoted, represented and interpreted, must be understood within the context of the charged atmosphere in Washington regarding US-Israel relations and the Israel-Arab peace process. The president of the United States and the prime minister of Israel are in open disagreement over these issues. Recently, a respected academic raised the question of dual loyalty…
Against this backdrop, a statement by one of America’s most prominent generals–head of the Central Command, who holds military responsibility and authority for most of the Middle East–that points to a negative linkage between America’s support for Israel and the success and safety of its soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq, is bound to become a controversial issue.
The controversy begins with the question of what General Petraeus actually said. Misquotation and misinterpretation by anti-Israel bloggers prompted a counter blog by the conservative author Max Boot. In his „Commentary“ blog of March 18, Boot argued that Petraeus was both misquoted and quoted out of context and pointed to the discrepancy between the written text and the general’s oral presentation.
Unlike Boot, I think that the written statement is important. But the paragraphs referring to Israel should indeed be put in context. In the first part of the written testimony, Petraeus speaks of „US interests and the most significant threats to them“. He mentions and elaborates on a few such threats: „Instability in Afghanistan and Pakistan, Iran’s destabilizing activities and policies, instability in Iraq and in Yemen“. This list is then followed by a second category, „Non-military challenges to security and stability“. He points to eleven such challenges, the first of which is „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 [area of responsibility]. Israeli-Palestinian tensions often flare into violence and large-scale armed confrontations. The conflict foments anti-American sentiment, due to a perception of US favoritism for Israel. Arab anger over the Palestinian question limits the strength and depth of US partnerships with governments and people 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.
While he did not quite say that Israel and its policies were jeopardizing the lives of US soldiers, the general or the staff member who actually authored the text adopted the first of two conflicting narratives.
The first narrative has its roots in the heyday of British imperial power in the Middle East. It was then argued by several policy-makers and analysts that there was a mutual bond between Britain and Arab nationalism, but Britain’s support for „the Jewish National Home“ in Palestine and its pro-Zionist policies (such as they were) poisoned Britain’s relationship with the Arab world. When the US displaced and succeeded Britain as the principal western power in the Middle East, this narrative was transplanted into an American context. The US, so the argument went, had no imperial and colonial past in the Middle East and the sole reason for Arab support for the Soviet Union was America’s support for the state of Israel.
The counter-narrative argues that this was at best a naive argument. Britain was hated because it colonized and dominated much of the Arab world and tried to hang on to its empire in the age of de-colonization. When America succeeded Britain, it did not acquire colonies in the Middle East, but created dependencies, exploited oil resources, built military bases, engineered coups d’etat and supported autocratic regimes. Support for Israel did not help with Arab and Muslim public opinion, but was not a prime reason for anti-US sentiments.
The debate between the two narratives was given a new twist by Henry Kissinger in the 1970s. He told Arab interlocutors that Washington was Israel’s friend and protector but that precisely for this reason it was in their interest to come close to it. Washington and not Moscow could get Arab states the land they lost in 1967. Egyptian President Anwar Sadat was the first to accept this argumentation. His archenemy, Syrian President Hafez al-Assad, appeared to follow suit in 1991, but did not complete the transition. The Israeli-Palestinian signing ceremony in the White House in September 1993 seemed to be a culmination of this new process.
This was fine as long as the US was orchestrating a functioning Arab-Israel peace process. With the onset of a new decade and a new century, the situation was transformed by several developments: the collapse of the peace process and the exacerbation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the terrorist attacks on the US mainland, the US invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan, the apparent conflict between George W. Bush’s America and large parts of the Muslim world, and Iran’s emergence as a major regional power and a leader of the „resistance camp“, namely resistance to the US and Israel.
These developments revived the debate between the two narratives. The Hamilton-Baker commission of 2006 endorsed the notion of linkage and argued that for the US to emerge successfully from Iraq, it had to revive an Arab-Israel peace process. Barack Obama as candidate and as president endorsed this view.
Israeli policy-makers should take note of the fact that a prominent US general (or his staff) either adopted the same point of view or thought that it should be represented in his testimony in Congress. They should also take note that in the text of this testimony the Iranian nuclear issue does not receive the prominence that Israel would have expected it to have.
Itamar Rabinovich, Israel’s ambassador to the US in the mid-1990s, is the Ettinger Professor at Tel Aviv University. He is also affiliated with NYU and The Brookings Institution.