Monday, 15 March 2010

What Lies Beneath US-Israeli Tensions

Its been a unusual week to be in Palestine. Like being in the eye of a storm.

Monday VP Joe Biden flies in to kick start the peace process but promising that there is "no space" between the USA and Israel.

Tuesday, the Israeli government announces 1,600 new homes for ultra-orthodox settlers in East Jerusalem and the Palestinians threaten to pull out.

Wednesday, Biden "strongly condemns" Israel's decision.

Thursday, there is a strategy meeting in the White House.

Friday, Hilary Clinton phones Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu to say the move is "deeply negative" for US-Israeli relations and lets everyone know.

Saturday, everyone has the day off.

Sunday, Obama Advisor, Daniel Axelrod says the move is an "insult" to the United States.

Monday, Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren says "Israel's ties with the US are in the most serious crisis since 1975."

So what lies beneath? Is it simply evidence of a power struggle in the Israeli Knesset with Shas trying to out manouver Netanyahu? Mark Perry thinks not. 

In an article for Foreign Policy  entitled, "The Petraeus Briefing: Biden’s embarrassment is not the whole story" Perry reports the outcome of a Pentegon intelligence briefing that took place in Washington in January.

"On Jan. 16, two days after a killer earthquake hit Haiti, a team of senior military officers from the U.S. Central Command (responsible for overseeing American security interests in the Middle East), arrived at the Pentagon to brief Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Michael Mullen on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The team had been dispatched by CENTCOM commander Gen. David Petraeus to underline his growing worries at the lack of progress in resolving the issue. The 33-slide, 45-minute PowerPoint briefing stunned Mullen. The briefers reported that there was a growing perception among Arab leaders that the U.S. was incapable of standing up to Israel, that CENTCOM's mostly Arab constituency was losing faith in American promises, that Israeli intransigence on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was jeopardizing U.S. standing in the region, and that Mitchell himself was (as a senior Pentagon officer later bluntly described it) "too old, too slow ... and too late."

The January Mullen briefing was unprecedented. No previous CENTCOM commander had ever expressed himself on what is essentially a political issue; which is why the briefers were careful to tell Mullen that their conclusions followed from a December 2009 tour of the region where, on Petraeus's instructions, they spoke to senior Arab leaders. "Everywhere they went, the message was pretty humbling," a Pentagon officer familiar with the briefing says. "America was not only viewed as weak, but its military posture in the region was eroding." But Petraeus wasn't finished: two days after the Mullen briefing, Petraeus sent a paper to the White House requesting that the West Bank and Gaza (which, with Israel, is a part of the European Command -- or EUCOM), be made a part of his area of operations. Petraeus's reason was straightforward: with U.S. troops deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. military had to be perceived by Arab leaders as engaged  in the region's most troublesome conflict...

The Mullen briefing and Petraeus's request hit the White House like a bombshell. While Petraeus's request that CENTCOM be expanded to include the Palestinians was denied ("it was dead on arrival," a Pentagon officer confirms), the Obama administration decided it would redouble its efforts -- pressing Israel once again on the settlements issue, sending Mitchell on a visit to a number of Arab capitals and dispatching Mullen for a carefully arranged meeting with the chief of the Israeli General Staff, Lt. General Gabi Ashkenazi. While the American press speculated that Mullen's trip focused on Iran, the JCS Chairman actually carried a blunt, and tough, message on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: that Israel 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. Certainly, it was thought, Israel would get the message.

Israel didn't. When Vice President Joe Biden was embarrassed by an Israeli announcement that the Netanyahu government was building 1,600 new homes in East Jerusalem, the administration reacted. But no one was more outraged than Biden who, according to the Israeli daily Yedioth Ahronoth, engaged in a private, and angry, exchange with the Israeli Prime Minister. 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."

Read the whole of Perry's report here

Philip Weiss observes, Suddenly the special relationship is embarrasing,

My initial joy over the Biden insult was not misplaced. The Israeli blunder has catalyzed a new moment in the US-Israel special relationship and maybe, just maybe the beginning of the end. The lead thinktank of the Israel lobby today proclaims that US-Israel relations are "perilous." AIPAC panicked last night. Michael Oren is alarmed.

The Obama administration seemed to relish the opportunity to distance itself from Israel almost as if it had been rehearsing for a break and was only waiting for the provocation. Everyone piled on. Hillary was sharply critical, Joe Biden was critical to Netanyahu’s face,  on Saturday there is the General Petraeus leak, and on Sunday David Axelrod is critical on the Sunday talk shows.

Displaying the same arrogance shown by Netanyahu, AIPAC has basically told the US Administration to "back off". According to the BBC, "Aipac, the powerful pro-Israel lobby group in the US, said recent US statements were a matter of "serious concern" - and the US should "take immediate steps to defuse the tension" - in other words, it should back off."