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The US-Israel Settlement Spat Boils Over

What Benjamin Netanyahu tried to play off as a misunderstanding and bad timing last week has become a real international incident, with the White House condemning the Israeli announcement of new settlements in East Jerusalem on the eve of proximity talks with the Palestinians. Today the AP reported that US officials want the Israelis to scrap the plan, escalating the tension.

Now the advocacy groups on all sides of this debate are speaking out. AIPAC has sided against the White House, cricitizing them for attacking Israel and calling on them “to take immediate steps to defuse the tension with the Jewish State.” By contrast, the progressive Jewish group J Street defended the White House’s actions:

Preventing provocative actions which undermine the peace process and decisions which weaken U.S. credibility in the region is also a matter of fundamental American national security interest, particularly as the U.S. government works to build a broad international coalition to address the Iranian nuclear program.

The United States is Israel’s closest ally. Their special relationship is rooted in shared interests and values and enjoys broad bipartisan support in Washington and across the country.

That is all the more reason why the Obama administration’s reaction to the treatment of the Vice President last week and to the timing and substance of the Israeli government’s announcement was both understandable and appropriate.

Needless to say, before the invention of J Street there would only be one voice in Washington representing “American Jews,” despite the diversity of voices on the question. While major donors will hit up their representatives to take the AIPAC line, this puts them in an uncomfortable position of taking on not just the White House, not just American Jewish public opinion, but also the US military, according to this report.

On Jan. 16, two days after a killer earthquake hit Haiti, a team of senior military officers from the U.S. Central Command (responsible for overseeing American security interests in the Middle East), arrived at the Pentagon to brief Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Michael Mullen on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The team had been dispatched by CENTCOM commander Gen. David Petraeus to underline his growing worries at the lack of progress in resolving the issue. The 33-slide, 45-minute PowerPoint briefing stunned Mullen. The briefers reported that there was a growing perception among Arab leaders that the U.S. was incapable of standing up to Israel, that CENTCOM’s mostly Arab constituency was losing faith in American promises, that Israeli intransigence on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was jeopardizing U.S. standing in the region, and that Mitchell himself was (as a senior Pentagon officer later bluntly described it) “too old, too slow … and too late.”

The January Mullen briefing was unprecedented. No previous CENTCOM commander had ever expressed himself on what is essentially a political issue; which is why the briefers were careful to tell Mullen that their conclusions followed from a December 2009 tour of the region where, on Petraeus’s instructions, they spoke to senior Arab leaders. “Everywhere they went, the message was pretty humbling,” a Pentagon officer familiar with the briefing says. “America was not only viewed as weak, but its military posture in the region was eroding.” But Petraeus wasn’t finished: two days after the Mullen briefing, Petraeus sent a paper to the White House requesting that the West Bank and Gaza (which, with Israel, is a part of the European Command — or EUCOM), be made a part of his area of operations. Petraeus’s reason was straightforward: 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.

That is simply stunning, a sea change in US-Israel policy (the White House, it should be known, denies this). We have to wait for the actions in the coming days, but I haven’t seen this level of pressure put on the Israelis in some time.

Glenn Greenwald has much more.

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David Dayen

David Dayen