General David Petraeus denies saying that the persistence of the Arab-Israel conflict endangers American troops in the region. Vice President Joseph Biden also denies saying this. That part of the story should thus be laid to rest. What Petraeus did say, however, is quite important…
In written testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee on March 16, Petraeus said:
The enduring hostilities between Israel and some of its neighbors present distinct challenges to our [CENTCOM] 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 peoples 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.
Petraeus‘ statement to the Senate is not surprising to those of us who have served and traveled in the Arab world. We may not like what we hear, and some of what is said is highly exaggerated; but these are! constant themes expressed by Arab interlocutors, including friends of the United States. We need to take this seriously.
US diplomacy in the Middle East has always involved a balancing act among competing interests that include: deep friendship with Israel; friendship with moderate Arabs; commitment to a peace settlement; preventing external aggression or internal destabilization; and ensuring the security of energy exports. American officials usually insist that each of these interests can and should be pursued in and of itself, unlinked to any other issue; but they realize that America’s ability to secure these interests is inextricably intertwined with the Israel-Arab conflict in the minds of those in the region.
Recent history has shown that the US gains substantial Arab support for its regional policies when the US is active in the peace process–even if such activity does not lead to success. Arab officials I interviewed for a book project were unanimous in saying that their governments would extend themselves to help the US when they could demonstrate US activity in support of peace, and they cited the experience of the Clinton and Bush administrations. The opposite also holds true.
The implication of the Petraeus statement is thus two-fold: first, that Arab views of the US rise and decline on the basis of their views toward the Israel-Arab conflict; and second, that the US can influence those Arab views by adopting a strong policy in support of peace and a policy perceived as fair and balanced.
Petraeus‘ testimony appeared just as the recent US-Israel mini-crisis over settlements/Jerusalem heated up, and it was read–erroneously–as timed to influence US policy in the mini-crisis. Actually, the Petraeus testimony is a required annual exercise that normally doesn’t get much coverage among the US-Israel policy community, since the testimony is a very lengthy assessment of CENTCOM activities and plans. The coincidence of its appearance at the time of US-Israel tensions, however, has given it wide distribution and added salience this year.
America’s current top regional priorities are the scheduled withdrawal of American forces from Iraq and the effort to stop Iran’s nuclear weapons program. For US policy-makers, it is imperative to clear the decks of any other issue that impedes their ability to secure these objectives. Thus when America’s top regional general says that the persistence of the Arab-Israel conflict hurts his effort to achieve core US national interests, the president, Congress and the American public sit up and pay attention.
The issue is no less important and, in many ways, very similar for Israeli policy-makers and the Israeli public. The government of Israel has identified the Iranian nuclear issue as its number one priority, and the government surely understands that the effort to push back this program–short of military action–will depend on concerted international action, through diplomacy and/or sanctions. If the Arabs have identified as their top priority, or one of their top priorities, progress in the peace process and a more balanced and active US role, it would seem prudent for the Israeli government to agree–not only to serve the larger goal of containing Iran, but because peace is also clearly in Israel’s interest. The intersection of these interests and warning signs can thus be transformed from a problem into an advantage: that is, activate a serious peace process with a serious American role and get in return the kind of Arab support Washington will need to curb Iran’s aggress! ive intentions.
Some may argue that this is peace process doubletalk, that is, an argument to get Israel to move on the peace process based on faulty American assessments. Indeed, it is possible that Arabs are telling Americans what they believe the US needs to hear, rather than some objective reality. But since we know that Arabs have acted in the past based on these views and are likely to act again in the future according to these views, wouldn’t it behoove both the US and Israel to take note?
Daniel Kurtzer holds the Abraham Chair in Middle East Policy Studies at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School. He served previously as United States ambassador to Egypt and to Israel.
Published 15/4/2010 © bitterlemons-international.org