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Paul Rogers on the US-Israel spat

Paul Rogers, 18 March 2010

The serious row between Washington and Tel Aviv is about far more than the construction of homes in east Jerusalem; it goes to the heart of the close military alliance between the two states.

A rare public dispute between the United States and Israel has dominated the international news agenda for over a week. Its spark, the Israeli interior-ministry’s announcement on 9 March 2010 of the proposed construction of 1,600 housing-units in east Jerusalem, was made more inflammable by the coincident visit to Israel of US vice-president Joe Biden as part of an attempt to revivify the moribund middle-east peace-process. A striking feature of what followed has been the US’s apparent readiness to escalate the row, in a way that has led commentators (and Israel’s ambassador to Washington, Michael Oren) to speak of a “historic” crisis between these routinely firm allies.

The effusion of political rhetoric around the issue, however, tends to overshadow a deeper and even more potent aspect of the quarrel: the military one, and in particular the urgent concern of some senior United States military figures that Israeli policy towards the Palestinians is damaging America’s security interests across the region – and hampering its efforts to prosecute the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The Israeli fuel

The concern is rooted in the many exchanges that have been taking place between senior commanders in United States Central Command (Centcom, the military headquarters responsible for US security interests in twenty countries across the greater middle east) and Arab governments in the region.

The Centcom view was presented in more coded form by its head, General David H Petraeus, in prepared testimony for his appearance before the senate armed-services committee on 16 March 2010 (see Mark Perry, “The Petraeus briefing: Biden’s embarrassment is not the whole story”, Foreign Policy, 13 March 2010). Petraeus wrote: “The enduring hostilities between Israel and some of its neighbors present distinct challenges to our ability to advance our interests. Arab anger over the Palestinian question limits the strength and depth of US partnerships with governments and peoples in the [middle east] and weakens the legitimacy of moderate regimes in the Arab world” (see Hilary Leila Krieger, “‘Arab-Israeli conflict hurts US’”, Jerusalem Post, 18 March 2010).

The Centcom leadership also briefed the chair of the US joint chiefs-of-staff, Admiral Mike Mullen: the gravamen was the pervasive view in the region that Israel’s hardline determination to establish even greater control over the West Bank and Gaza was unopposed by an impotent Washington (see Akiva Eldar, “Americans worried Israeli-Palestinian conflict harming U.S. standing in region”, Ha’aretz, 16 March 2010).

The extensive coverage of the affair in the diverse Israeli media has mixed scorn for Barack Obama’s administration and bitter criticism of Binyamin Netanyahu’s government with a certain expectation that Israel’s friends in the United States would help to limit the fallout of the dispute (see Jim Lobe, “US military targets Israeli ‘intransigence’”, Asia Times, 17 March 2010). There are in principle good reasons for this position: influential organisations such as the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee (Aipac) – which holds its annual conference on 21-23 March 2010, with Hillary Clinton and Benjamin Netanyahu both scheduled to speak – are working hard to restore the normalcy of US bedrock support for Israel. Moreover, Israel can rely on a wider base of sympathy than the core lobbying groups; for example, the large swathe of Christian Zionists in the country is highly valued for the voting power it represents (see “Christian Zionists and neocons: a heavenly marriage”, 3 February 2005).

At the same time, more perceptive analysts within the US’s pro-Israel groups worry that long-term trends are moving against the country – in strategic and demographic terms, and where its international profile is concerned. During and after the six-day war of June 1967 – a pivotal moment in forging the alliance – Israel came to be seen in much of the west as a brave underdog battling an Arab hydra (see Colin Shindler, “Israel’s rightward shift: a history of the present”, 23 February 2009). The wars and conflicts of later decades – in Lebanon (1978, 1982, 2006), the West Bank (the intifada of 1987-93 and 2000-05), and Gaza (2008-09) – and the burgeoning settlements of Israelis across the West Bank have greatly shifted this perception, if less so in the United States than in Europe (see Walter Russell Mead, “Obama and the Jacksonian Zionists”, American Interest, 16 March 2010). The indirect impact of 9/11 and the subsequent “war on terror” to a degree refuelled the sense of Israel as a reliable security asset and outpost of western values; but as the romance of 1967 continues to fade so the belief is growing that time is no longer on Israel’s side (see “After Gaza: Israel’s last chance”, 17 January 2010).

The Iraqi impulse

This context helps explain why Centcom commanders are so worried about the effect of Israel’s approach to the Palestinians on the United States’s strategic position in the region. But what makes their intervention striking is the deep background of intimate military cooperation between the two firm allies.

The most notable recent example of such cooperation took place in the perilous early months of the war in Iraq. By autumn 2003, Washington’s initial euphoria about the invasion and regime-change had long dissolved as the US army and marine corps began to encounter a formidable urban insurgency across central Iraq for which they were inadequately trained and equipped. In these circumstances, they naturally turned to their sole ally possessed of vast experience in urban counterinsurgency.

A number of earlier columns in this series drew attention to urgent but little-reported meetings held in Israel in late 2003 between senior Israeli army-officers and key figures in the US army’s training-and-doctrine command (Tradoc) (see, for example, “After Saddam, no respite”, 19 December 2003).

A particular meeting on 1-5 December 2003, scarcely tracked outside the specialist defence media, involved General Kevin Byrnes (the head of Tradoc) and Brigadier-General Benjamin Freakley (the commander of the US army’s infantry school at Fort Benning, Georgia). Defense News quoted the views of a US military source present:

“Israel has much to offer in the technological realm, while operationally, there are obvious parallels between Israel’s experiences over the past three years in the West Bank and Gaza and our own post-offensive operations in Iraq. We’d be remiss if we didn’t make a supreme effort to seek out commonalities and see how we might be able to incorporate some of that Israeli knowledge into our plans.”

The US-Israeli collaboration intensified in the months that followed, in particular as the US military purchased numerous Israeli military systems (see “Between Fallujah and Palestine”, 21 April 2004). Defense News quoted a US defence official at the time saying that military-to-military “cooperation has been going on for decades across all service branches, but its true that only recently, you’ve started to see a lot more Israeli defence systems deployed in different theatres.”

The US army and marine-corps’s cooperation with Israel reached its height in 2007 when the army’s engineer-corps finished the two-year construction of a mock Arab town in Israel’s Negev desert (see Shelly Paz, “IDF builds fake Muslim city to prepare for war“, Jerusalem Post, 22 January 2007).. Baladia was designed as an advanced infantry-training facility where both the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) and their US counterparts could employ the most up-to-date equipment and tactics in conditions as close to actual experience in the field as possible (see “A tale of two towns”,  21 June 2007).

The trigger of change

This shared experience gives the current crisis its extraordinary, even unprecedented flavour: for the very arm of the United States federal government which has the closest links with Israel – namely, the military – is now suggesting that Israel is the source of some of its own key problems in the middle east.

The significance is heightened by the fact that the criticism comes not (for example) from retired generals not remote from the strategic frontline; but from the very US military command that has been fighting the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan for most of the decade – and would be responsible for handling any military confrontation with Iran (see Aluf Benn, “It’s too bad Netanyahu and Obama didn’t stop and think first”, Ha’aretz, 17 March 2010). This elite forms a core element of the US “military-industrial complex” which in five decades of close cooperation with Israel has furnished its ally with sophisticated weapons-systems, undertaken many joint exercises, provided huge amounts of aid; and in turn depended on Israel for crucial assistance in its war in Iraq (see “Iraq’s Israeli factor“, 7 July 2004).

The prospect, even it remains only that, of Israel losing the support of such a vital constituency is one to chill Israeli leaders as they ponder their country’s overall relationship with the United States. The argument about yet another construction project in east Jerusalem will pass; its underlying trigger has the potential to shake the middle east for years to come.

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