The US-Israeli spat has reached a temporary conclusion. Israel has no intention of halting construction of settlements in East Jerusalem, as both Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat recently revealed.
The White House correspondingly went silent for Passover and the peace process remains frozen until further notice.
Whether US officials have truly pressured Israel to the limit or we’re watching an elaborate show remains uncertain, though many indications lean towards stagecraft over statecraft. A new “crisis” looms in the near future, whenever Jerusalem comes to a head again, or Gaza, or something completely new. But whatever the case, America and Israel have transitioned from defending themselves to damage control.
Having won its battle, Israel is already deep into a re-branding campaign.
One example was a recent Haaretz report by Zvi Bar'el explaining how a third intifada plays into Israel’s hands - by returning it to the role of victim. Such thinking is likely found in Israel's cabinet, as military operations in Gaza are another way of triggering the sympathy response. Anything to mold Israel from bully back into a discriminated target.
Israel has bigger plans in motion too.
Throughout the “crisis” its lobby mingled in Congress like it owned the place, but it was also busy securing the support of retired US generals and admirals. Conducted by the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs (JINSA) and released April 2nd, over 50 high ranking US military officials are demanding public support of Israel and silence of dissent.
The initiative forms a major part of the Israeli lobby’s response to General David Petraeus, who inflicted more damage to Israel’s image than the Biden flap by suggesting Israel presents a danger to US policy in the Middle East.
JINSA opens the letter, “While we recognize, as Gen. Petraeus did, that American support for Israel is used by our adversaries to foment anti-Americanism, we also recognize that the important countries of the region won't like us any better if we shed Israel as an ally. They will wonder how quickly we will shed THEM when they are inconvenient. The correct response to those who denigrate the U.S.-Israel relationship, is to note that Israel is a friend by virtue of shared civic and political values and a security asset upon which the United States can rely.”
But as previously stated Israel is well underway in damage control, mobilizing its lobby to assail Congress and the Pentagon as soon the White House gave the slightest hint of mounting a resistance, however exaggerated it may be. A shift in Petraeus’ stance apparently rattled Israel more than Obama, but even still, JINSA’s muscle seems kind of silly since Petraeus made a 180 weeks ago.
The lobby had gotten to him already. 50 retired US generals and admirals are meant to leave no doubt.
Petraeus was pleased to set the record “straight” during a press briefing at St. Anselm College, in New Hampshire, after being asked to clarify himself by The American Spectator’s Philip Klein. According to Petraeus he did none of the following: suggest Israel is the main obstacle to peace in the Middle East or that it endangers the lives of US soldiers, or request from the White House that the Palestinian territories be transferred from EUCOM to CENTCOM.
It is neither conspiratorial nor paranoid to say the Israeli lobby’s power is on full display.
Let’s reverse engineer by starting with Petraeus’ denial of eying the Palestinian territories, as it is indicative of his other responses. Though he told reporters,“I don’t send things to the White House,” Petraeus left out that Foreign Policy, which broke the story, corrected the error through its military sources. His request had been sent to Joint Chief of Staff Michael Mullen.
For Petraeus to emphasize the White House is classic non-denial denial. The same pattern developed for the other two issues, and in these cases a third party emerged to shape Israel’s message: neoconservative commentator Max Boot.
The Huffington Post reported soon after Petraeus’s walk-back, “Petraeus himself said that Max Boot of Commentary magazine understood his position and clearly sorted through the issues. In fact, Petraeus believes Boot's grasp of what he actually said was so accurate, he told Klein he sent a copy of Boot's original blog post to General Gabi Ashkenazi, chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces, saying the ‘blog by Max Boot... picked apart this whole thing, as he typically does, pretty astutely.’"
This statement is remarkably revealing. Boot is a proud neocon and staunch Israeli advocate who did a stint at the Project for a New American Century. He supported the Iraq war from the beginning, supports imperialism and “spreading democracy” in the Middle East through “temporary” occupation, and believes in American exceptionalism. For Petraeus to consider Boot’s thinking “astute” says a lot in itself.
What, then, did Boot’s “so accurate” analysis conclude?
“General Petraeus obviously doesn’t see the Israeli-Arab ‘peace process’ as a top issue for his command, because he didn’t even raise it in his opening statement,” he wrote in one of three defenses. “When he was pressed on it, he made a fairly anodyne statement about the need to encourage negotiations to help moderate Arab regimes.”
Boot makes sure to declare Mark Perry, the Foreign Policy correspondent that touched off the controversy, a “terrorist groupie” before explaining his analysis. After denying that Petraeus defined Israel as the main obstacle in the Middle East, Boot reports, “Petraeus barely mentioned Israel (until prompted to do so) and never talked about settlements at all throughout his testimony to Congress.”
The possibility that Israel endangers US troops in the region is completely fictitious. Boot quotes Petraeus himself as saying, “There is no mention of lives anywhere in there. I actually reread the statement. It doesn’t say that at all.”
What Petraeus really meant, according to Boot, is that, “many other important factors stand in the way of peace, including a whole bunch of extremist organizations, some of which by the way deny Israel’s right to exist. There’s a country that has a nuclear program who denies that the Holocaust took place. So again we have all these factors in there. This [Israel] is just one.”
So Israel isn’t “the main” obstacle to peace in the region, just one. Much clearer.
As for the safety of US troops, Boot claims that Petraeus is only worried about the perception of US-Israeli relations. Perceived immunity towards Israel is, again, none of many causes of anti-US sentiment in the Middle East, not the only cause. Petraeus denied any tangible risk to US troops.
Apparently this is the truth.
Throughout his explanation Boot positions himself as a defender of the US military, saying, “I hope Petraeus’s comments will put an end to this whole weird episode. Those who are either happy or unhappy about the administration’s approach to Israel should lodge their compliments or complaints where they belong - at the White House, not at Central Command.”
Except Boot’s personal translation of Petraeus and unconvincing disguise of ardent Israeli boosting shouldn’t fool anyone; the Petraeus controversy had already died down when JINSA released its letter. Fast forward two days later and, on cue, Israeli ambassador Michael Oren brought Petraeus’s new message to the US public.
Speaking in an interview with CNN, Oren said that if Israel did not exist more extremists in the region would join Al-Qaeda. "The US is much safer thanks to Israeli-American cooperation," he said.
Oren, like Petreaus and Boot, wants us fixated on the physical level: US troops are safer in Afghanistan because of Israeli intelligence and supplies, and because it scares terrorists. The larger point is obscured by design. US-Israeli relations do have a political and psychological effect across the Middle East, resulting in lower US popularity. Most any insurgent, “terrorist,” average Muslim, or Arab capital will tell you so.
Since US military officials adore him, Israel is Clausewitz’s friction on American political and military operations in Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia.
To be clear the question isn’t whether America should support Israel, but whether its support should be absolute and without consequence. Israel has abused its special relationship with America and grown complacent in the process. It believes the region - often the world - revolves around its existence, and that it might not need peace with the Palestinians.
Israeli arrogance is a liability to US policy in the Middle East that drags down overall Western popularity at a time when perception is crucial to modern counterinsurgency. Petraeus must know as much, having oversaw the US Army’s COIN manual that makes perception a priority, thus his backtracking speaks louder than his prior statements. What he didn’t say outweighs what he did.
Petraeus, along with Oren, Boot, and all of Israeli’s supporters, are trying to put Pandora back in the box. Watching them try is enlightening of the real US policy towards Israel and Palestine.
And these moves should have company soon. Many people have ignored Petraeus’ backtracking as his original quotes continue to spread across the Middle East media cycle. Jordan’s King Abdullah II recently raised the issue, followed by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Fresh off a collapse on the Israeli-Syrian front, Erdogan told reporters in Paris before meeting French President Nicolas Sarkozy, "Israel represents now the main threat to regional peace. "If a country makes use of disproportionate force in Palestine and use phosphorous bombs in Gaza ... We demand that how can it do that.”
This message will be preached more and more unless Israel alters its position on East Jerusalem and its behavior in general. But the odds favor increased marketing from Washington and Jerusalem over a real change in policy.