Mearsheimer and Bacevich on Petraeus and the Clash of US-Israeli Interests

Taking Sides
John Mearsheimer
London Review of Books, 17 March 2010

In the wake of Vice President Joe Biden’s ill-fated trip to Israel last week, many people would agree with the Israeli ambassador Michael Oren’s remark that ‘Israel’s ties with the United States are in their worst crisis since 1975… a crisis of historic proportions.’ Like all crises, this one will eventually go away. However, this bitter fight has disturbing implications for Israelis and their American supporters.

First, the events of the past week make it clear in ways that we have not seen in the past that Israel is a strategic liability for the United States, not the strategic asset that the Israel lobby has long claimed it was. Specifically, the Obama administration has unambiguously declared that Israel’s expansionist policies in the Occupied Territories, including East Jerusalem, are doing serious damage to US interests in the region. Indeed, Biden reportedly told the Israeli prime minister, Binyahim Netanyahu, in private:

This is starting to get dangerous for us. 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.

If that message begins to resonate with the American public, unconditional support for the Jewish state is likely to evaporate.

Right after Biden’s remarks were reported by the Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth, Mark Perry, a Middle East expert with excellent contacts in the US military, described a briefing that senior officers working directly for General David Petraeus, the head of Central Command, gave on 16 January to Admiral Michael Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The central message Petraeus sent to Mullen, according to Perry, was that ‘Israeli intransigence on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was jeopardising US standing in the region… and could cost American lives.’ Apparently, Mullen took this message to the White House, where it had a significant impact on the president and his chief advisers. Biden’s comments to Netanyahu appear to reflect that view.

Israel’s supporters in the United States have long defended the special relationship between the two countries on the grounds that their interests are virtually the same and therefore it makes sense to back Israel no matter what policies it adopts. Recent events show that claim to be false, however, which will make it hard to defend the special relationship, especially if it is putting American soldiers at risk.

Second, the Obama administration has gone beyond simply expressing anger over the 1600 housing units that Israel announced it would build in East Jerusalem just after Biden landed at Ben-Gurion Airport. According to press reports that have not been challenged, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has demanded that Netanyahu reverse his government’s decision approving that construction. This demand is unprecedented; the United States has often complained about settlement building, and Obama asked Israel to freeze temporarily the construction of new settlements in 2009, but it has never asked Israel to reverse a building plan that the government has already approved.

Israel will surely fight tooth and nail against Clinton’s demand, and so will the main groups in the lobby. The Netanyahu government is filled with hard-line opponents of a two-state solution, many of whom also believe that East Jerusalem is an integral part of Israel, and it is hard to see how Netanyahu’s coalition could survive if he agreed not to build those 1600 housing units. Yet Obama has powerful incentives to stand his ground as well. After all, he backed down last year when Netanyahu refused his request that Israel completely freeze settlement building in all of the Occupied Territories – including East Jerusalem – and that act of spinelessness has cost him dearly in the Arab and Islamic world. More important, we now know that the president and his lieutenants believe that new construction in East Jerusalem threatens American lives, which makes it even harder to see how he could back down without suffering political damage.

Still, it is hard to imagine the Obama administration engaging in a serious fight with Israel over the fate of those 1600 housing units, given that the lobby wields extraordinary influence inside the Beltway. The president is also not inclined by temperament to engage in public brawls and he has so many other problems on his plate that he surely does not want to get bogged down in a costly fight with Israel and its American supporters. In the end, there is likely to be a rather muted, protracted dispute between the two sides over those housing units and the many others that the Netanyahu government plans to build in East Jerusalem. This ongoing conflict will be a constant reminder to Americans that Israel and the United States have conflicting interests on a very important issue.

The third reason that this crisis is so troublesome for Israel and the lobby is that it forces the latter to choose sides in a public way. There is little doubt that almost all of the mainstream organisations of the lobby will back Israel to the hilt and blame the Obama administration for the crisis. This tendency to defend Israel no matter what it does is reflected in the recent comments of Abraham Foxman, the head of the Anti-Defamation League. He issued a press release about the Biden visit in which he said he was ‘shocked and stunned at the administration’s tone and public dressing down of Israel on the issue of future building in Jerusalem’. It was, he said, ‘a gross overreaction to a point of policy difference among friends’. He will have plenty of company in the weeks ahead from his fellow hard-liners in the lobby, who will not miss an opportunity to defend Israel and lambast Obama and his advisers.

Siding with Israel against the United States was not a great problem a few years ago: one could pretend that the interests of the two countries were the same and there was little knowledge in the broader public about how the Israel lobby operated and how much it influenced the making of US Middle East policy. But those days are gone, probably for ever. It is now commonplace to talk about the lobby in the mainstream media and almost everyone who pays serious attention to American foreign policy understands – thanks mainly to the internet – that the lobby is an especially powerful interest group.

Therefore, it will be difficult to disguise the fact that most pro-Israel groups are siding with Israel against the US president, and defending policies that respected military leaders now openly question. This is an awful situation for the lobby to find itself in, because it raises legitimate questions about whether it has the best interests of the United States at heart or whether it cares more about Israel’s interests. Again, this matters more than ever, because key figures in the administration have let it be known that Israel is acting in ways that at best complicate US diplomacy, and at worst could get Americans killed.

The crisis will undoubtedly simmer down over the next few weeks. We are already hearing lots of reassuring rhetoric from the administration and Capitol Hill about ‘shared values’, ‘unbreakable bonds’ and the other supposed virtues of the special relationship. And the lobby is hard at work downplaying the importance of the crisis. For example, Congressman Gary Ackerman, a fervent supporter of Israel, described recent events as a ‘mini-crisis, if even that’. Michael Oren is now denying – rather late in the game I might add – that he ever said that relations between Israel and the United States are at a 35-year low. He claims to have been ‘flagrantly misquoted’. And to show how Orwellian the lobby can be, Israel’s supporters are also trying to make the case that Biden too was flagrantly misquoted and indeed, he never told Netanyahu that Israel’s policies were putting American troops at risk.

This concerted effort to rewrite history and generate lots of happy talk about the special relationship will surely help ameliorate the present crisis, but that will only be a temporary fix. There will be more crises ahead, because a two-state solution is probably impossible at this point and ‘greater Israel’ is going to end up an apartheid state. The United States cannot support that outcome, however, partly for the strategic reasons that have been exposed by the present crisis, but also because apartheid is a morally reprehensible system that no decent American could openly embrace. Given its core values, how could the United States sustain a special relationship with an apartheid state? In short, America’s remarkably close relationship with Israel is now in trouble and this situation will only get worse.

Gen. Petraeus discovers the Holy Land
His belated recognition that U.S. and Israeli interests aren’t always intertwined will surely discomfit some
By Andrew Bacevich [An ex-military officer whose son, Andrew, was killed in Iraq in 2007]

Gen. David Petraeus, commander of United States Central Command, may or may not have asked to add the West Bank and Gaza to the 4.6 million square miles of land and sea comprising his Area of Responsibility (AOR).

Writing in Foreign Policy magazine’ s “Middle East Channel,” journalist Mark Perry reports that he did. Petraeus, leaving himself plenty of wiggle room, says it’s not so.
This much is certain, however: Gen. Petraeus, easily the most influential U. S. officer on active duty, has discovered the Holy Land. And his discovery is likely to discomfit those Americans committed to the proposition that the United States and Israel face the same threats and are bound together by identical interests.
With regard to the plight of the Palestinians, Petraeus says that this is emphatically not the case. Here, he believes, U. S. and Israeli interests diverge — sharply and perhaps irreconcilably.

In a lengthy statement offered to the Armed Services Committee earlier this week, Petraeus ticked off a long list of problems in his AOR — AfPak, Iran, Iraq, Yemen — and then turned to what he called the “root causes of instability.” Ranking as item No. 1 on his list was this: “insufficient progress toward a comprehensive Middle East peace.” Petraeus continued:

The enduring hostilities between Israel and some of its neighbors present distinct challenges to our ability to advance our interests in the AOR. Israeli-Palestinian tensions often flare into violence and large-scale armed confrontations. The conflict foments anti-American sentiment, due to a perception of U.S. favoritism for Israel. Arab anger over the Palestinian question limits the strength and depth of U.S. partnerships with governments and peoples in the AOR and weakens the legitimacy of moderate regimes in the Arab world. Meanwhile, al-Qaeda and other militant groups exploit that anger to mobilize support. The conflict also gives Iran influence in the Arab world through its clients, Lebanese Hizballah and Hamas.

These judgments are not exactly novel. Indeed, they are commonplace, even if they remain in some quarters hotly contested. What is striking is that Petraeus, hardly a political naif, should have endorsed them — and that he chose to do so at a moment when U. S.-Israeli relations are especially fraught.

What are we to make of this?

It seems increasingly clear that a thoroughgoing reappraisal of the U. S.-Israeli strategic partnership is in the offing. Much of the credit (or, if you prefer, blame) for that prospect belongs to John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, authors of the famous (or infamous) tract “The Israel Lobby.” …..

To pretend that this divergence of interests does not exist or does not matter — or to sustain the pretense that the fraudulent “peace process” holds out any real prospect of producing a solution — is the equivalent of allowing a sore to fester. The inevitable result is to allow infection to spread, with potentially fateful consequences.

Here in the ninth year of the Long War, with U.S. policy toward the Islamic world one long record of folly and miscalculation, what we need is more candor, not less.

How long the United States can tolerate the denial of Palestinian self-determination is one question demanding urgent attention. Yet behind that question there lurks an even larger one: Is the progressive militarization of U.S. policy in the Greater Middle East — entrusting ever more authority to proconsuls like Gen. Petraeus and flooding the region with American troops — contributing to peace and stability? Or is it producing precisely the opposite result?…

Comments (5)

Ghat Albird said:

John Mearsheimer’s concluding sentence on TAKING SIDES

“Given its core values, how could the United States sustain a special relationship with an apartheid state? In short, America’s remarkably close relationship with Israel is now in trouble and this situation will only get worse.”

What follows are extracts on housing projects in israel published in Haaretz.

Housing Minister Ariel Atias warned against the spread of Arab population into various parts of Israel, saying that preventing this phenomenon was no less than a national responsibility.

“I see [it] as a national duty to prevent the spread of a population that, to say the least, does not love the state of Israel,” Atias told a conference of the Israel Bar Association, which focused on a reforming Israel’s Land Administration.

The Shas minister referred to Harish, a housing project built for the Haredi community in northern Israel, saying that the Arab population from the nearby Wadi Ara was spreading into the Harish area.

He went on to state ” we will lose the Galilee. Populations that should not mix are spreading there. I don’t think that it is appropriate [for them] to live together.”

He argued that lands should be marketed to each sector separately, in order to create segregation, not just between Jews and Arabs but also between other sectors, such as ultra-Orthodox and secular Jews.

March 18th, 2010, 5:48 pm


Akbar Palace said:

Utopia 2012

Good articles Professor Josh. I see your anti-Israel work is as steady and as plentiful as it ever has been.

Andrew Bacevich [An ex-military officer whose son, Andrew, was killed in Iraq in 2007] states:

How long the United States can tolerate the denial of Palestinian self-determination is one question demanding urgent attention.

Palestinians have “self-determination”, it’s called Hamas and the PA.

Of course, with some Americans blaming the impass on Israel, it certainly gives hope to the Arab rejectionists to continue their war against Israel. Yes, perhaps one day soon, the US will stop supporting Israel. Then the Arabs will be happy, and the US will win the hearts and minds of the Arab Street, al-Queda, and Iran…

I can’t wait.

March 18th, 2010, 7:34 pm


Shai said:

Akbar says: “Then the Arabs will be happy, and the US will win the hearts and minds of the Arab Street, al-Queda, and Iran…”

A short quote from Robert McNamara, about America in Vietnam:

“None of our allies supported us. Not Japan, not Germany, not Britain or France. If we can’t persuade nations with comparable values of the merit of our cause, we’d better reexamine our reasoning.”

(Taken from the documentary “Fog of War”)

March 18th, 2010, 8:38 pm


Husam said:


Don’t waste your effort with this Akbar character. I for one, support Israel’s but not without a just and long overdue solution to the suffering of Palestinians. People who are tunnel visioned like Mr. Akbar Zion, over-play their cards and in turn see to Israel’s demise. They are so hard core, they only see one color: red.

It is a disgrace to have such level of idiocity on this board.

March 19th, 2010, 12:28 am


jo6pac said:

Please every one, please don’t leave out Adm. Mullen. If he leaves his post in 2010 we all should run for are lives.

March 19th, 2010, 3:31 am


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