That most rare and unusual of incidents in our political system has recently occurred: the U.S. military has publicly entered the fray on the political calculus of a foreign policy issue. General David Petraeus, CENTCOM commander, the mastermind of the Iraq surge and the most celebrated soldier of America’s recent history, has spoken: our relationship with Israel is hurting us; it makes us look weak and beholden to a foreign government; it allows our enemies to whip up anti-Americanism and erodes popular support, alliances and our overall military posture. What he didn’t say explicitly was inferred: Israeli leaders, their intransigence on the peace process, their treatment of the Palestinians, is costing American lives.
Having met the soft-spoken, thoughtful general in Iraq, I don’t think David Petraeus is anti-Israel or anti-Semitic, although I’m sure that accusation has already been leveled against him by those who would protect Israeli interests at all costs. Like any military man, I think he cares first and foremost about anything that would inhibit him from doing his duty: protecting American lives and American security. Most military men are risk averse and do not wade lightly into the uncertain ground of politics. They demand of themselves what they demand from their soldiers: to remain within a clearly defined chain of command and do their jobs. That Petraeus has made the calculation to break with this tradition tells us that the problem is a serious one.
But we’ve known this for some time, haven’t we, if we had bothered to look closely at the entire issue dispassionately. We’ve known that inside Israel (and indeed around the world) there are people who truly believe that the entire “Holy Land”- both Israel proper and the Palestinian Territories- has been bequeathed by God to the Jewish people. Every country has its own extremists, that is nothing new or different. (Let’s call them what they are; we don’t mince words when we talk about Islamic or Christian or Hindu extremists.) The distinction here is that these extremists are part of the governing coalition headed by Prime Minister Netanyahu that runs Israel. Their efforts to block reconciliation and peace at all costs in nothing new. This constituency has been actively nurtured for decades with funding, support and preferential treatment by the Israeli government itself (as well as numerous charity groups, many of them based in the United States). As Roger Cohen of the New York Times notes in his excellent essay, in 1990 there were 78,000 Israeli settlers on land that the UN recognized as Palestinian in 1948 when TWO nations, Israel and Palestine, were created. Today there are 300,000 settlers.
Given this context, rarely talked about in the American media, is it surprising that the Israeli government is not serious about peace? Is it so hard to imagine that they do not want to talk about the final contours of a Palestinian state at the same time that they are building homes and settling people within its (eventual) borders? Is it surprising when the Bin Ladens of the world highlight settler paramilitary groups (backed by the Israeli army and their American-made weapons) and their violence and humiliation of Palestinians in their broadcasted tirades? This turns the rational behind the American War on Terror on its head for most moderate Muslims: they are smart enough to see a glaring hypocrisy between America’s call to resist religiously inspired violence of the Islamic variety while America itself blindly supports that same violence by another religion.
Israel’s powerful lobby and its American media minions are already explaining away the rising tension in their relationship with America since Vice President Biden’s visit. The Washington Post catapults the blame back onto Obama, not understanding how he could once again get into it with Israel at this delicate stage in his administration. Really? That’s your argument? Obama was the culprit? Was it Obama who waited until peace talks were about to be restarted by a visiting American envoy to announce plans to construct 1,600 new settlement units after they had committed to a moratorium? I thought presidents were supposed to lead, as so many Washington Post editorials have demanded, not capitulate on basic principles of trust and keeping your word.
Richard Cohen does an even more fanciful pirouette around the issue. He tries to deflect attention by complaining that the Palestinians have named some inconsequential square after a female suicide bomber that struck in 1978. He goes on to claim that unlike the blood thirsty Palestinians, Israel would never honor terrorists. Really Richard? How selective is your memory? Menachem Begin, Ariel Sharon, David Ben Gurion. All of them were responsible for terrorist acts against civilian targets, for depopulating whole villages, for massacring numerous innocents. Perhaps Cohen should do a little more research before he mouthes off; talk to, say, Ari Folman, director of the Academy Award nominated Israeli film Waltz With Bashir about what went on in the Palestinian camps of Sabra and Shatilla in Lebanon. If this wasn’t terror, I don’t know what is. Both sides have their terrorist-freedom fighters. This is what building trust and a realistic peace process between the two sides is all about- stopping the elevation of murderers to national hero status. But you can’t do that when one side continually sabotages any impetus to begin talking.
Other Israel proxies- such as David Makovsky of the Washington Institute- like to downplay the de-link between Israeli actions and their ramifications for American security. They often say that no one wakes up in Baghdad or Kabul, thinks about the Palestinians and then plans to kill Americans. But for those of us who aren’t crawling the DC cocktail circuit, those who actually have lived and worked in these places, that’s just it, they do. Arab and Muslim populations are bombarded with propaganda on Israeli transgressions and American backing for them on daily basis, not only from Islamic extremists but from their own governments, many of them U.S. allies. This increases sympathy and support in a myriad of ways for insurgencies from Yemen to Iraq to Pakistan. Murderous Islamic fundamentalists are let off the hook easy by their moderate countrymen who reason that if Americans and Israelis can preach freedom while supporting injustice then double standards within the Islamic world are easier to swallow. This makes the jobs of American men and women in uniform unambiguously more dangerous and difficult.
The supreme irony of this entire situation is that the broader Israeli public- peaceful, wanting just to live normal lives- fight the same exact disease as the vast majority of their moderate Muslim neighbors. A virulent ideology that combines religious exceptionalism and ethnic hatred, propagated by a tiny but dedicated minority. In the Israeli case, unfortunately, this minority has become a well organized special interest that has penetrated governments and has powerful backers across the world. Harsh words from our president or Secretary of State have not dissuaded them in the past and will not matter today. Unless we as a country are prepared to place concrete consequences before them for their actions, their behavior will continue. Because there is no cost to it continuing.
Of course, except for more brave American men and women coming home in steel coffins. And more letters from General Petraeus, trying to explain to their families why we couldn’t do more to keep them alive…