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Petraeus dialed back on his remarks somewhat when he actually gave his Senate testimony. Among other things, he clarified that he did not seek to put any blame on Israel. But he stood behind his observation that Israel’s conflicts with its neighbors “present distinct challenges to our ability to advance our interests in the area of responsibility.”
In 2008, the retired general James Jones also became a focus of concern for Israelis as he prepared to assume the post of national security adviser to President Obama. Jones, according to press reports, supported the deployment of an international force in the Israeli-occupied West Bank instead of the Israel Defense Forces. He also reportedly opposed Israel’s demand to retain extensive security control over the territories even after a Palestinian state is established.
Unlike Petraeus and Mattis, Jones never served as head of CENTCOM. During the George W. Bush administration, he was, in fact, appointed as a special envoy for Middle East security to work with both Israelis and Palestinians on security issues. Last year, Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, also warned sternly against a military strike against Iranian nuclear facilities, which Israel was widely reported to be considering.
Taken together, such comments have created an impression among some that views critical of Israel are common among the military’s top commanders. But according to Heather Hurlburt, executive director of National Security Network, a progressive-leaning think tank: “The comments of these officers [about Israel] are a bit misinterpreted. They were not making a comment on the conflict, they were describing the terrain features they encounter.”
Zinni, who took on a role as special envoy dealing with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict after leaving his CENTCOM command, rejected Mattis’s claim that Israeli policies are forcing American troops in the region to pay a price. “We sacrifice for allies,” he said, pointing to America’s military engagement in Europe during World War II and in support of South Korea. “That’s what we do for allies.” Zinni added: “I have never experienced anyone who made life more difficult for CENTCOM because of our relations with Israel.”
Military ties between the two nations run deep and include joint exercises, intelligence sharing and programs for Israeli officers attending military training schools in the United States. Zinni recalled that upon arriving in Israel he met with then Defense minister Shaul Mofaz, who years earlier had been his student at a Marines officers training course.
A source involved in military ties between the two nations also noted that American top officers are in favor of promoting cooperation with the IDF, because “Israel is an easy sell in the Pentagon,” where civilian leadership supports strengthening of the ties.
One reason that some commanders who deal with the Middle East come to view Israel’s impact on America’s security interests critically could be structural, some sources say. America’s Central Command includes the entire Middle East but excludes Israel, which was put under the responsibility of the European Command. Therefore, top CENTCOM commanders deal on a daily basis with Arab governments but do not have any interaction with Israeli counterparts or leaders. The recent decade’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have put even more officers in the region, creating, according to Hurlburt, “a generation of Americans who have experienced firsthand the dynamic that Mattis is talking about.”