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Washington — Moving Israel to CENTCOM, an idea that had been discussed in the past, is viewed widely as risky, since it could undermine the trust between America and its Arab allies, who would hesitate before sharing information in forums that include Israel. Similar concerns have led America’s military to separate neighboring India and Pakistan into different commands, placing India in the Pacific Command and Pakistan in CENTCOM.
Reaching out to top generals and making the case for Israel among military leaders has traditionally been seen as a secondary priority for pro-Israel advocates in the United States. Most lobbying efforts and dollars are directed at elected officials and at holders of key positions in the executive branch, including the Pentagon’s civilian leadership.
Reaching out to officers has been left largely to one program operated by the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs, a conservative-leaning organization focused on defense and military issues. For the past 31 years, JINSA’s program has taken a dozen retired generals and admirals to Israel annually to meet with Israeli officers and to view firsthand the country’s security needs and concerns. In addition, it organizes a yearly visit of cadets and midshipmen.
Mattis’s remarks, said Michael Makovsky, JINSA’s CEO, “raise the need of educating the generals that deal with all the Arab countries but don’t know Israel.” Makovsky, a former Pentagon civilian official, was recently chosen to head JINSA after several years in which the organization experienced instability and a bumpy leadership shift.
Now, Makovsky says, there is a need to expand the programs in order to expose more senior officers to the Israeli viewpoint. “The remarks of General Mattis betray a lack of historical understanding,” he argued. At the same time, Makovsky said he’d “love to take General Mattis to Israel and have him meet Israeli commanders.”
Despite the recent uproar created by Mattis’s remarks, top generals on both sides minimize their impact on the future of Israeli-American defense ties.
Zinni, when asked about the lasting impact of remarks such as those made by Mattis on American policy toward the Middle East, jokingly shrugged off the notion of any possible effect. “Trust me, there’s no impact,” he said.
Zinni ruefully recalled his own attempts to warn the Bush administration against going to war with Iraq. “Retired generals are invited to social events, but no one wants us to talk about policy,” he said.