Gen. Petraeus Discusses Effect of Israeli-Arab Hostilities on ‘Moderate’ Mideast Governments

By Patrick Goodenough | March 18, 2010 | 4:54 AM EDT

U.S. Central Command head Gen. David Petraeus addresses a leadership forum at Columbus State University, Ga., in September 2009. (Photo: CentCom)

( – The U.S. military command overseeing the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq has not formally asked the Obama administration to add the Palestinian territories to its area of responsibility but officers have discussed the idea, according to Gen. David Petraeus, who heads the U.S. Central Command.
Testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee this week, Petraeus said tensions between Israel and the Arabs “have an enormous effect on the strategic context within which we operate in Central Command area of responsibility.”
He spoke about the importance of having “a sense of progress moving forward” in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, “because of the effect that it has, particularly on what I think you would term the moderate [mostly Arab] governments in our area.”
CentCom’s area of responsibility (AOR) stretches from Pakistan to Egypt, incorporating Central Asia and the entire Middle East, except for Israel and the Palestinian self-rule territories, which fall within the AOR of the Germany-based European Command.
Petraeus told the committee that he and CentCom staff members at various times had discussed asking for the Palestinian areas to be added to their AOR, but that he had neither made a formal recommendation to that effect nor sent a memo to the White House on the issue, as was recently reported.
The Foreign Policy magazine Web site reported at the weekend that CentCom officers had recently raised concerns with the Joint Chiefs of Staff “that Israeli intransigence on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was jeopardizing U.S. standing in the region,” and that Petraeus had requested that the Palestinian territories fall under CentCom.
His reasoning for the request, Foreign Policy said, was that “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.”
Petraeus told the Senate hearing that although neither Israel nor the Palestinian territories were in the CentCom AOR, “we keep a very close eye on what goes on there because of the impact that it has” in the Arab area of the AOR.
In his written testimony, he listed “insufficient progress toward a comprehensive Middle East peace” as the first of several factors that “can serve as root causes of instability or as obstacles to security.”
“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,” he argued.
“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 Hezbollah and Hamas.”
‘Iran, not Israel is the issue
Coming at a time of diplomatic tensions between the U.S. and Israeli governments over planned housing construction in Jerusalem which has riled the Palestinians, the Foreign Policy report caused a stir.
Many supporters of Israel have longstanding sensitivities about “linkage” between the Israeli-Palestinian issue and other situations in the region which they argue are not directly related. They worry that Israel comes under U.S. pressure to make concessions, which may be detrimental to its own security, for the sake of maintaining Arab or Muslim support for some other cause, whether expelling Saddam Hussein from Kuwait in 1991, or countering threats posed by Iran or fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan today.
The Washington-based Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs (JINSA), responding to the Foreign Policy report, disputed the notion that the U.S. standing in the Arab world was being damaged by a lack of progress on the Israeli-Palestinian front.
“To the extent that U.S. power is eroding in the region, it is because the Obama Administration spent more than a year ‘engaging’ Iran while the mullahs spent the year increasing their nuclear weapons development program and brutally suppressing election protesters,” JINSA said in a briefing.
“The Obama Administration then announced ‘crippling sanctions’ that it couldn’t deliver and now is openly engaged in ensuring that Israel will not take action against what for Israel is an existential threat, but for the United States is only a distraction. This American policy terrifies Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States. For them, as for Israel, Shiite Iran presents an existential threat.”
Shifting AORs
CentCom is one of six regional commands under the Pentagon’s Unified Command Plan. The others are European Command (Europe, Russia, Israel), Africa Command (all of Africa, except for Egypt), Northern Command (North America), Southern Command (Latin America) and Pacific Command (Asia-Pacific, from India eastward).
The Unified Command Plan is reviewed every couple of years and AORs sometimes adjusted. Middle Eastern countries fell under European Command until 1983, when the region was carved off for the then new CentCom. Israel, Syria and Lebanon remained under European Command, but the latter two moved across to CentCom in 2004.
A variety of reasons have been given over the years for the anomalous situation regarding Israel, along with the decision to split India and Pakistan into different commands’ AORs.
They include practical difficulties in getting military officers from arch foes in the two flashpoint regions to sit down together and cooperate; and the fact Israel is politically and culturally closer to Europe than the Arab world, and predominantly Hindu India looks to Asia whereas Islamic Pakistan aligns towards the Middle East.
“Which command a country ends up in determines the prism through which the United States views its relations,” Dana Priest wrote in her 2003 book The Mission: Waging War and Keeping Peace with America’s Military.
“When the states of Central Asia first won their independence from the Soviet Union …[the then CentCom chief] wanted to use alliances with those states to encircle and contain Iran. But the Central Asian countries fell within U.S. European Command, where the focus was on getting them to look toward Europe and away from Mother Russia for political and economic inspiration,” Priest wrote.
“When the biannual review gave the Islamic states of South and Central Asia to Central Command, it signified a recognition by the president and the secretary of defense that Islamic fundamentalists and the terrorist cells they bred posed a new threat.”
Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow