While almost a week has passed since Gen. David Petraeus, commander of the United States Military’s Central Command (CENTCOM) testified before the Senate and dropped his bombshell about Israel, concern within the defense establishment has only grown.
While the assumption among the top IDF brass is that Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Michael Mullen does not support Petraeus’s widely-reported claim that Israeli intransigence was a problem for the US military in the Middle East and was fomenting conflict, the comments still worry Israel for a number of reasons.
First and foremost is the possibility that Petraeus’s comments indicate a shift among US military thinkers. While diplomatic ties between Jerusalem and Washington have traditionally known their ups and downs, ties on the military level have always been perceived to be rock-solid.
If what Petraeus expressed is a belief held by other top military officers, then this thinking could translate itself into changes to the military cooperation between the countries, the sharing of intelligence and operational assessments, as well as future joint exercises.
Secondly, Petraeus’s comments could have an impact on the American public’s perception of Israel and might affect the $3 billion in military aid the US provides Israel annually.
One possibility that some officials raised on Sunday was that Petraeus was setting up Israel as the scapegoat for the US military when it pulls out of Iraq and Afghanistan.
As the officer in charge of both those ongoing conflicts, Petraeus will be the one blamed or credited with their outcome. By saying that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict undermines America’s interests in the region, he is laying the groundwork for a defense should the area destabilize when the US pulls out.
If that happens, Petraeus or his successor will be able to refer back to his testimony last week before the Senate’s Armed Services Committee and say, “We told you so already back then.”
Another possibility is that Petraeus’s comments signal a genuine frustration within the US top command with the current trend in the Middle East.
As commander of CENTCOM, Petraeus is responsible for all Arab and Muslim countries in the Middle East, except Israel and the Palestinian territories.
With Iran’s influence on the rise in Iraq, Afghanistan and the moderate Arab countries – Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan – the Americans are seeking to retain their influence and are looking for new places where they can do that. Moving the PA into the purview of CENTCOM would provide them with an opportunity to obtain a positive outcome somewhere in the Arab world.
The US military’s interest in what is happening in Israel is twofold.
On the one hand, peace assists the US in advancing its diplomatic
interests in the region and bolstering moderate Arab regimes. But what
happens in the West Bank will also be a demonstration of American
power, an indication of whether American military involvement can
change the situation on the ground.
For this reason, it came as no surprise to the IDF last month when
Mullen, who was visiting Israel, held a long meeting with Lt.-Gen.
Keith Dayton, the American officer in charge of training the
Palestinian security forces in the West Bank. Dayton was in charge of a
similar training program for Fatah forces in Gaza, who were then
overrun by Hamas in its 2007 takeover of the Strip.
If he fails again, it will not reflect well on overall US military operations in the region.