Washington — The comment by the general who, until recently, ran America’s military command in the Middle East was startling in its bluntness.
“I paid a military-security price every day as the commander of CENTCOM because the Americans were seen as biased in support of Israel,” James Mattis told an elite audience at the Aspen Security Forum in Aspen, Colo., on May 20.
The comments by Mattis, who took off his uniform for good only this past May, were part of a one-hour interview in which Mattis was equally blunt about the crucial importance of Secretary of State John Kerry’s current effort to move forward the long-stalled Middle East peace process.
“The current situation is unsustainable,” he said. And chances of achieving a two-state solution “are starting to ebb because of [Israel’s West Bank Jewish] settlements and where they’re at.” If current trends continue, Mattis warned, Israel “ceases to be a Jewish state or you say the Arabs don’t get to vote — apartheid. That didn’t work too well the last time I saw that practiced in a country.”
Mattis is not the first general to voice concern about the impact of Israeli policies and U.S. support for Israel on American security interests. One retired top Israeli general went so far as to describe some of these commanders as “brainwashed” as a result of their having served in Arab countries. They come to believe that “Israel is the reason for hatred toward America in the Arab world,” said the former commander, who would speak only on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of Israei-U.S. military ties.
But several American defense experts argued that Mattis and several other generals who have voiced critical perspectives on Israel do not reflect any broad disaffection with the U.S.-Israel relationship among top American commanders.
“I don’t think this is a feeling among top brass,” retired Marine Gen. Anthony Zinni — himself a former CENTCOM commander — told the Forward in a July 26 interview.
Pro-Israel activists have, over many years, devoted the lion’s share of their efforts to the executive and legislative branches of America’s government. And those branches of government support Israel solidly on a bipartisan basis. But the country’s top military brass has always been harder to characterize.
On the one hand, military-to-military ties between the United States and Israel have long been extremely tight. Yet on the other, officers serving in the region have proved to be attentive to a worldview prevalent among Middle East leaders, one that points to Israel and its conflict with the Palestinians as a prime cause of instability in the region.
In 2010, one of Mattis’s predecessors in CENTCOM’s command, Gen. David Petraeus, shocked his Israeli friends when prepared testimony he was to give to the Senate leaked before he appeared. The prepared remarks, which were based on a study that his staff conducted of American security interests in the Middle East, stated: “The enduring hostilities between Israel and some of its neighbors present distinct challenges to our ability to advance our interests in the [region]…. The conflict foments anti-American sentiment, due to a perception of U.S. favoritism for Israel.”