War Stories

Has Obama Turned Against Israel?

The charge is ludicrous.

Gen. David Petraeus speaks to the Senate Armed Services Committee

How many senior U.S. officials will be branded turncoats or anti-Semites before the Israeli government, AIPAC, and Sen. Joseph Lieberman realize that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made a serious mistake in approving an expansion of 1,600 new housing units in East Jerusalem and that he must correct it—not just for political or diplomatic reasons but in the interests of American and Israeli security?

What about Gen. David Petraeus? Will Lieberman and the other lawmakers who have lashed out at President Barack Obama for lashing out at Israel’s latest expansionism now add the chief of U.S. Central Command and hero of the surge to their list of irresponsibles?

It wasn’t covered much in the U.S. press, but on March 16, at the Senate Armed Services Committee’s hearings on the defense budget, Petraeus made the following statement *:

The enduring hostilities between Israel and some of its neighbors present distinct challenges to our ability to advance our interests in the AOR [CentCom’s area of operation, which includes Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as much of the Middle East]. … The conflict foments anti-American sentiment, due to a perception of U.S. favoritism for Israel. Arab anger over the Palestinian question limits the strength and depth of U.S. partnerships with governments and peoples in the AOR and weakens the legitimacy of moderate regimes in the Arab world. Meanwhile, al-Qaida 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. [Italics added.]

This was a bold statement, coming from a highly respected military commander—that “a perception of U.S. favoritism for Israel” was weakening Arab moderates, strengthening Iran, and playing into the hands of al-Qaida.

It was no insta-reaction to the housing expansion—which the Israeli government announced last week precisely as Vice President Joe Biden arrived on an official visit to discuss an impending revival of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, one element of which would certainly concern the expansion of Jewish settlements.

Petraeus was making public the conclusion of a 45-minute briefing that he’d delivered in January to Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff—which itself was based on a tour of the region, including lengthy discussions with Arab leaders, in December. (The briefing was first reported on by Mark Perry of the Middle East Peace Channeland published in Foreign Policy.)

The general’s remark at the Senate hearings was part of his written opening statement, meaning that it had been vetted by Mullen and perhaps other higher-ups. It puts flesh and authority on Biden’s remark to Netanyahu that the expansion endangers U.S. security interests and troops—and on the subsequent statements by the White House and the State Department “condemning” the expansion (even while reaffirming the United States’ unwavering commitment to Israel’s defense).

Netanyahu, meanwhile, apologized for the unfortunate timing of the announcement (and for his brother-in-law’s public remark that President Barack Obama is an anti-Semite), but he defended to the hilt the decision to expand the housing.

As if on cue, Sens. Lieberman and John McCain held a colloquy on the Senate floor, calling on the Obama administration to end this “family feud” with Israel and focus more on the threat from Iran (while not calling on the Israeli government to do anything). Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., complained that Obama was condemning a “staunch ally” over what he called “a zoning decision.”

Israel’s Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman went further still. Rejecting any demands that Jews refrain from building houses in East Jerusalem, he asked, “Can you imagine if they told Jews in New York they could not build or buy in Queens?”

All of these counterattacks are, at best, disingenuous. This is no family squabble to be toned down at the dinner table; the expansion of housing is no zoning decision; analogies between East Jerusalem and Queens are preposterous.

It is worth noting, for instance, that every nation or international entity that has taken a position on the issue—except for Israel—regards East Jerusalem, at least formally, as “occupied territory.”

Israel annexed East Jerusalem in 1980, but no other country recognized the move. U.N. Resolution 478, passed soon after, declared the annexation to be in violation of international law and thus “null and void.” (The Security Council passed the resolution with no dissent; even the United States merely abstained.)

Most observers believe that if there ever is an Israeli-Palestinian peace treaty, it will turn over all, or very nearly all, of Jerusalem to Israeli control. Few Israelis would accept a treaty that didn’t. However, this is a bargain to work toward—not to assume as a given, before serious talks have started.

The problem goes beyond legal niceties. U.S. envoy George Mitchell was on the verge of starting “indirect” talks between Israelis and Palestinians, shuttling between the two, at least initially. The talks were quietly supported by Saudi Arabia, whose rulers want to check the regional ambitions of Iran, which uses (and supplies) Hezbollah and Hamas as its surrogates. A convergence of interests between Israel and Arab moderates—among whom can be numbered Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad—would tilt the regional balance away from Iran. This tilt could help in the campaign to stop Iran from getting nuclear weapons—and perhaps solidify support for U.S. and NATO policies in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

However, this entire chain depends on one critical link: the appearance of a genuine and promising movement toward an Israeli-Palestinian settlement. For their own standing in the rest of the Arab world and among their own potentially volatile populations no Arab country can afford to get too cozy with the United States, and especially not with Israel, as long as that link is severed.

By continuing to expand in East Jerusalem, the Israeli government’s leaders demonstrate that they are not interested in a real peace. By doing so while simultaneously snubbing Vice President Biden (whose support for Israel is longstanding and undisputed), they are putting both the United States and themselves in an untenable position.

President Obama is forced to take one of two steps. Either he backs down and accepts what Israel does—in which case he loses credibility as an honest broker, and the United States loses power as a dominant player in Middle East politics—or he steps up pressure against Israel, in which case the (current) Israeli leaders stiffen their necks more tightly, and the region’s anti-Israeli, anti-Western militants, sensing weakness, step up their aggression.

Meanwhile, too many of Israel’s most outspoken supporters in Congress—who compete at AIPAC’s annual conferences to see which of them can be more pro-Israel than the average Israeli—only encourage the Israeli right-wingers to stick to their guns (on the premise that their friends will ensure America keeps its aid flowing and its head bowed) and thus do disfavor to Israel’s longer-term interests. (Meanwhile, in another bit of bad timing, the next AIPAC conference takes place in Washington, D.C., this weekend.)

At some point, this nexus may backfire here at home as well. The more people realize that this mutual enabling is harming U.S. security, support for Israel may dwindle very rapidly.

Some evidence suggests this is already beginning to happen. In a Rasmussen poll taken last August, 70 percent of American respondents viewed Israel as an ally. In a new survey by the polling firm out today, this figure has declined to just 58 percent. The situation isn’t dire: Only 2 percent see Israel as an enemy; but a surprisingly large 32 percent see it as something in between.

If Israeli leaders don’t care about American polls, they should maybe listen to one of their leading supporters, Rep. Howard Berman, D-Calif., chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. In a March 16 statement, Berman noted that the two countries are still strong allies and that they shouldn’t let the current dispute obscure that fact. However, he also said:

The administration had real justification for being upset with the timing of the settlements announcement. A process was supposed to be in place to keep the United States from being blindsided by just such a development, and yet once again we were blindsided. The Israeli leadership needs to get this right and put a system in place so it won’t happen again.

If more of Israel’s so-called friends gave an Amen to those words, then maybe it won’t. Otherwise, it almost certainly will.

* Update March 30, 2010: This statement was part of Gen. Petraeus’ written testimony, but it reflected his views and was vetted by his military superiors.

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