Last week, Vice President Joe Biden was publicly slapped in the face by the Netanyahu government during his trip to Jerusalem. The Israeli government used the occasion to announce the settlement of 1,600 Israelis in Arab East Jerusalem, in defiance of America’s calls for a freeze on settlements. According to a report in Yedioth Ahronoth, Biden responded: “This is starting to get dangerous for us. What you’re doing here undermines the security of our troops who are fighting in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. That endangers us and it endangers regional peace.”
Now in a fascinating briefing note at Foreign Policy, Mark Perry gives us a clearer sense of what Biden was thinking:
On Jan. 16… a team of senior military officers from the U.S. Central Command (responsible for overseeing American security interests in the Middle East), arrived at the Pentagon to brief Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Michael Mullen on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The team had been dispatched by CENTCOM commander Gen. David Petraeus to underline his growing worries at the lack of progress in resolving the issue. The 33-slide, 45-minute PowerPoint briefing stunned Mullen. The briefers reported that there was 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, and that Mitchell himself was (as a senior Pentagon officer later bluntly described it) “too old, too slow … and too late.”
The January Mullen briefing was unprecedented. No previous CENTCOM commander had ever expressed himself on what is essentially a political issue; which is why the briefers were careful to tell Mullen that their conclusions followed from a December 2009 tour of the region where, on Petraeus’s instructions, they spoke to senior Arab leaders. “Everywhere they went, the message was pretty humbling,” a Pentagon officer familiar with the briefing says. “America was not only viewed as weak, but its military posture in the region was eroding.” But Petraeus wasn’t finished: two days after the Mullen briefing, Petraeus sent a paper to the White House requesting that the West Bank and Gaza (which, with Israel, is a part of the European Command — or EUCOM), be made a part of his area of operations. Petraeus’s reason was straightforward: with U.S. troops deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. military had to be perceived by Arab leaders as engaged in the region’s most troublesome conflict.
Perry goes on to say that the briefing “hit the White House like a bombshell.” There’s no doubt that this is what inspired Biden’s comments. Indeed, this was plain from the Yedioth Ahronoth report, which went on, after quoting Biden, to state: “The vice president told his Israeli hosts that since many people in the Muslim world perceived a connection between Israel’s actions and US policy, any decision about construction that undermines Palestinian rights in East Jerusalem could have an impact on the personal safety of American troops fighting against Islamic terrorism.”
The Netanyahu government and its supporters in the United States want the controversies relating to Jerusalem, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip to be dealt with alone, detached from any impact they could have on the broader region and the interests the United States is pursuing there with its troop placement in two different theaters. That in fact reflects the way most American media report on these developments. But this approach is foolish, for reasons that the Petraeus briefing makes clear. Perry sees this as a struggle between two “lobbies,” namely the Israel lobby and the U.S. military. The Israel lobby is very powerful, he says, but how can it compete with the U.S. military asserting the imperative interest in the security of U.S. troops? The Netanyahu government’s recent dealings reflect contempt for the Obama Administration and indifference at best for its position in the Middle East. These steps seem perfectly coordinated with neoconservatives in the United States, as shown in the “apology” offered on their behalf by Washington Post editorial writer Jackson Diehl (“Biden flunked,” he concludes, applying typically obtuse reasoning). The question is whether a close ally can throw juvenile tantrums and abuse its protector indefinitely without consequences. So far the answer appears to be: yes it can.
Perry’s column is an essential read. I’m halfway through his new book, Talking with Terrorists, and expect to have a discussion of the book in the form of an interview with Perry up before the end of the month.