Has Obama Turned Against Israel?
The charge is ludicrous.
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."
Fred Kaplan is Slate's "War Stories" columnist and author of the book, The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter.