What Petraeus Said
On March 16, Gen. David H. Petraeus testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee. Though his statement generated a lot of commentary in the blogosphere by people interested in the Israeli-Palestinian issue, the focal point of his testimony was Iran and not Israel.
He stated that one of the major tasks of Central Command during the upcoming year was “countering destabilizing Iranian activities and policies.” Through its Revolutionary Guard, Iran engages in covert activities that support militants; undermines the peace process through its support of Hamas and Hizbullah; subverts democratic processes in Lebanon; and influences and intimidates Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan and the Gulf states. Gen. Petraeus also described Iran’s nuclear program as “a serious, destabilizing factor in the region… [that] is widely believed to be a part of the regime’s broader effort to expand its influence.”
The United States and Israel have no disagreement between them about the perception that Iran poses a threat to the region. However, in dealing with the threat, there are only a few things that Israel can do. With respect to Iran’s nuclear program, the major contribution Israel can make is not to attack Iran. An attack by Israel would have catastrophic consequences for America’s interests. It would undermine the goal of stability in the region because Iran would probably retaliate by destabilizing Iraq and Afghanistan, putting the lives of American military personnel at risk. The price of oil would surge as Iran would attempt to disrupt transportation through the Gulf, damaging the United States’ economy and sending more Americans out of work. It would be an attack that could drag the United States into a war it did not want. It would be a classic case of the “tail wagging the dog,” leaving the influence and credibility of the United States in the region in tatters. Whatever benefits there would be of an Israeli attack would be limited. After reviewing the intelligence data, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said that an attack would at best only set back Iran’s nuclear program a few years.
In confronting Iran’s other destabilizing activities and policies—supporting militants, undermining the peace process, subverting democratic processes, and influencing other states in the region—America’s task is made more difficult because, according to Gen. Petraeus, there has been “insufficient progress toward a comprehensive Middle East peace.” He went on to say that “Arab anger over the Palestinian question limits the strength and depth of U.S. partnerships with governments and peoples in AOR countries 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, Hizbullah and Hamas.”
While dealing with these destabilizing activities of Iran are of lesser importance to Israel than the nuclear question, they are of major concern to the United States because of its broad and deep regional interests and responsibilities. Both Israelis and Palestinians can help the U.S. confront Iran by doing what is necessary to reinforce, in the words of Gen. Petraeus, “credible U.S. effort on Arab-Israeli issues that provides regional governments and populations a way to achieve a comprehensive settlement of the disputes… [because this] would undercut Iran’s policy of militant ‘resistance,’ which the Iranian regime and insurgent groups have been free to exploit.”
Gen. Petraeus did not specify what a “credible U.S. effort” was, other than endorse the active engagement of George Mitchell in brokering an Israeli-Palestinian peace. He wisely left the task of developing one to the White House. Since 2003, the Road Map has been the framework for the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Under it, there is no action that Israel could take that is more crucial to ensuring success than its fulfilling its obligation to dismantle “settlement outposts erected since March 2001” and its freezing “all settlement activity (including natural growth of settlements.” The applicability of this obligation includes East Jerusalem, as the Quartet reminded Israel on March 19, 2010, when it stated that the international community does not recognize the city’s annexation. When Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently addressed the AIPAC Conference, she linked a credible peace process with advancing America’s interests and pointed out how continued settlement construction in East Jerusalem and the West Bank undermines the mutual trust necessary for successful negotiations, and weakens U. S.’ credibility that is vital for it to have an effective role in the peace process.
Unfortunately, Israel prefers continuing the settlement enterprise than helping the United States counter “Iran’s destabilizing activities and policies.” Having noted the choices Benjamin Netanyahu has made, the Obama administration has the responsibility to determine the United States’ national security interests, the obligation to assert them, and the duty to not surrender them in the face of opposition by Israel.