Jeffrey Goldberg’s report on a meeting of National Security Council Principals Committee (NSC/PC), in which Secretary of Defense Robert Gates expressed frustration with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s intransigence on the peace process and the fact that “the U.S. has received nothing in return” for its security guarantees, might raise more questions than it answers.
What Goldberg didn’t mention is the historical and conceptual context for Gates’ remarks. Indeed, Gates is not the first senior American official to express concern that the protraction of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — and the perception of U.S. favoritism toward Israel on this issue — was offering few, if any, dividends for U.S. security or its own regional interests.
Back in March, 2010, Gen. David Petraeus made waves when he told the Senate Armed Services Committee that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict had immediate implications for the U.S.’s ability to pursue its interests in the Middle East. He named some of these problems:
Insufficient progress toward a comprehensive Middle East peace. 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. 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 Hizballah and Hamas.
Israel hawks quickly denounced Petraeus’ comments and have continued to attack a straw man argument that resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict wouldn’t solve all challenges facing the U.S. in the Middle East.
But Petraeus wasn’t the only senior U.S. official to endorse the concept of “linkage” between resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the longer-term strategic interests of the U.S. in the Middle East. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, CENTCOM commander Gen. James Mattis, and Adm. Michael Mullen — via a WikiLeaks cable — have voiced endorsements of this concept.
While Jeffrey Goldberg — who has a history of rejecting linkage — carefully reports on Gates’ anger with Netanyahu for delivering “nothing in return” for security guarantees, access to weapons, and intelligence sharing, he is careful to sidestep the obvious next question. Why does Gates feel strongly about Netanyahu refusing to “grapple with Israel’s growing isolation and with the demographic challenges it faces if it keeps control of the West Bank”?
Goldberg doesn’t engage that topic. It might be because Gates shares the emerging consensus of the U.S.’s top military and political leadership that Israel’s continued settlement expansion and intransigence at the negotiating table is doing real damage to the Obama administration’s attempts to pursue a wide range of military and political interests in the Middle East.