Earlier this month, a posting on the Foreign Policy website caused a firestorm by reporting that in January, Gen. David Petraeus “sent a briefing team to the Pentagon with a stark warning: America’s relationship with Israel is important, but not as important as the lives of America’s soldiers.”
According to the dispatch by Mark Perry (an advocate of talks with terrorist groups), Petraeus requested that the West Bank and Gaza be shifted to his Central Command (from European Command) so that the U.S. military could “be perceived by Arab leaders as engaged in the region’s most troublesome conflict.”
The report, which was presented as context for the recent blowup between the Obama administration and Israel, was quickly seized on by critics of Israel as confirmation of their view that U.S. support for Israel hinders America’s national security interests.
Soon, other blogs followed up by reporting that Petraeus echoed this sentiment in testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee. For instance, in a post titled, “Petraeus Makes His Move,” Talking Points Memo’s Josh Marshall wrote, “Now we have (Petraeus) saying it in his own words.”
But on Wednesday, Petraeus poured cold water on the controversy, explaining in detail why “all three items…were wrong, frankly.”
Petraeus made the remarks in response to a question by TAS at a press briefing held prior to a scheduled appearance St. Anselm College in Manchester, New Hampshire. (Watch video of the full exchange here.)
To start with, Petraeus said he never requested to have the West Bank and Gaza added to his responsibilities as leader of the military’s Central Command. He said that “every year or so” commanders submit a plan that takes a geographic look at their areas of responsibility, and then there’s discussion about whether it would make sense to redraw the boundaries. For instance, he said, last time Sudan, Somalia, Ethiopia, Eritrea and Djibouti were shifted to the Africa Command.
“Typically, there’s a question of should we ask to have Israel and Palestinian territories included, because what goes on there is obviously of enormous interest to the rest of the Central Command area, which is the bulk of the Arab world,” Petraeus said. However, he emphasized that it was “flat wrong” to claim he actually requested responsibility for the areas.
He said the report was “based on ‘bad gouges,’ as a sailor would say — bad information.”
He also refuted the claim that he had sent a request to the White House, saying he “very rarely” sends things to the President, and only does so if he’s specifically asked.
In addition, he explained that the quote that bloggers attributed to his Senate testimony was actually plucked out of context from a report that Central Command had sent the Armed Services committee.
“There’s a 56-page document that we submitted that has a statement in it that describes various factors that influence the strategic context in which we operate and among those we listed the Mideast peace process,” he said. “We noted in there that there was a perception at times that America sides with Israel and so forth. And I mean, that is a perception. It is there. I don’t think that’s disputable. But I think people inferred from what that said and then repeated it a couple of times and bloggers picked it up and spun it. And I think that has been unhelpful, frankly.”
He also noted that there were plenty of other important factors that were mentioned in the report, including “a whole bunch of extremist organizations, some of which by the way deny Israel’s right to exist. There’s a country that has a nuclear program who denies that the Holocaust took place.”
Petraeus continued, “So we have all the factors in there, but this is just one, and it was pulled out of this 56-page document, which was not what I read to the Senate at all.”
In an effort to tamp down the controversy, Petraeus said, he spoke to Gabi Ashkenazi, chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces, and reassured him that the reports were inaccurate. He also said he sent Ashkenazi a blog post written by Max Boot of Commentary, which he said “astutely” picked apart the erroneous information that’s been floating around.
When asked about the claim that the perception that the U.S. is too reflexively pro-Israel puts American soldiers at risk, Petraeus said, “There is no mention of lives anywhere in there. I actually reread the statement. It doesn’t say that at all.”
He said the only point was that moderate Arab leaders are worried about a lack of progress in the peace process.
“Their concern is that those who promote violence in Gaza and the West Bank will claim that because there’s no progress diplomatically, the only way they get progress is through violence,” he said. “And that’s their concern.”
Critics of Israel have tried to co-opt Petraeus as somebody who shared their view that U.S. support for Israel has become a liability for America. But in reality his only point is that lack of progress in resolving the conflict is one factor — among many others — that affects the dynamics of the region.