Did you say Israel? Centcom Commander David Petraeus and Vice President Joe Biden have something in common now: the thorn and danger that Israel's "insults" represent for American policy in the Middle East. Ryan Crocker, in the middle, a former ambassador to Iraq, is now out of the picture. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's claim that he knew nothing of the announcement of 1,600 new units in Israel's colonization of Arab East Jerusalem, timed to smack with Biden's visit to Israel last week, isn't washing. The vice president's trip, designed to smooth over relations between Israel and the United States, may instead be a turning point for the Obama administration, though Biden missed a chance to make that turn more explicit.
As Thomas Friedman writes in The Times today (in a piece aptly termed "Driving Drunk in Jerusalem"), Biden
should have snapped his notebook shut, gotten right back on Air Force Two, flown home and left the following scribbled note behind: "Message from America to the Israeli government: Friends don't let friends drive drunk. And right now, you're driving drunk. You think you can embarrass your only true ally in the world, to satisfy some domestic political need, with no consequences? You have lost total contact with reality. Call us when you're serious. We need to focus on building our country."The political ramifications in Israel or between Israel and the United States aren't the main issue here. What this "insult" is unraveling is what Friedman barely alludes to, though not clearly enough: Israel's posture is undercutting American credibility and interests in the Middle East (in Iraq, in Afghanistan, in Pakistan, and even in the Arab heartland where open conflicts don't cloud perspectives).
I think that -- rather than fuming and making up -- would have sent a very useful message for two reasons. First, what the Israelis did played right into a question a lot of people are asking about the Obama team: how tough are these guys? The last thing the president needs, at a time when he is facing down Iran and China -- not to mention Congress -- is to look like America's most dependent ally can push him around.
Mark Perry makes that point in a remarkable piece for Foreign Affairs in which he reports on a January meeting instigated by David Patraeus, commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East, with Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Mike Mullen. Petraeus warned Mullen that everywhere in the Middle East, and because of Israel's gratuitous manipulation of American policy, "America was not only viewed as weak, but its military posture in the region was eroding." Petraeus requested to the White House that Palestine/Israel be included in his region of command (known as Centcom). He was rebuffed. This White House, like previous administrations, doesn't want "linkage" between the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and other conflicts in the Middle East.
It's a colossal blind spot. The fuel and fury of every other conflict, at least in the popular imagination's mind (the popular imagination that fanatics depend on and preach to) is rooted in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Resolve that one and the reason for being of such groups as Hezbollah, Iran's radical clerics and the Osama bin Ladens of the world is considerably diminished.
Petraeus' request didn't get anywhere. His message did. the Obama administration sent Mullen to Israel to meet with Israeli General Staff, Lt. General Gabi Ashkenazi, according to Perry, and tell Israel that it "had to see its conflict with the Palestinians 'in a larger, regional, context' - as having a direct impact on America's status in the region."
Israel didn't get the message, as its humiliation of Biden with the colonization announcement showed yet again. Biden had a private shouting match with Netanyahu. Perry goes on:
Not surprisingly, what Biden told Netanyahu reflected the importance the administration attached to Petraeus's Mullen briefing: "This is starting to get dangerous for us," Biden reportedly told Netanyahu. "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." Yedioth Ahronoth went on to report: "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 message couldn't be plainer: Israel's intransigence could cost American lives.Perry's conclusion: say what you will about the power of the Israeli lobby, it does not compare with the power of the Pentagon/military lobby. Israel's short-sighted presumptions may be running out of immunity. If so, it's about time. But so far the Obama administration is still playing the game on Israel's terms. Huffing and puffing doesn't add up to getting tough in substance.