Still Spinning Petraeus and Israel

Stephen Walt, co-author of the Israel Lobby and a leading proponent of the view that U.S. support for Israel is against American national security interests, accuses me of “revisionism” regarding Gen. Petraeus’s views on Israel.

Walt writes that, “Phil Klein at The American Spectator claims that Petraeus is denying he said any of the things previously attributed to him in recent weeks, and is walking back from his own testimony (i.e., prepared statement) to the Senate Armed Services Committee.”

To start with, this has nothing to do with what kind of “claims” I’m making —  I posted a 7-minute video of Petraeus in his own words denying what’s been attributed to him and calling several reports (including one on the Foreign Policy website for which Walt writes) “flat wrong.”

Walt links to this post by Matt Duss at the Center for American Progress, which he says “pokes holes in Klein’s revisionism.”

In the post, Duss tries to suggest that Petraeus really is confirming the point that critics of Israel have been making all along, citing some of the comments Petraeus made to me in the video about the relationship between the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the broader regional dynamics. Petraeus acknowledged that there was a “spillover effect” that Central Command monitors.

This is part of a broader effort by Israel’s critics to co-opt Petraeus as one of their own. It started with the disputed report in Foreign Policy, which claimed that Petraeus was concerned about Israeli “intransigence” ultimately endangering American soldiers. And it continues today, with a Pat Buchanan column using the same Foreign Policy item on Petraeus to claim that, “As this message has now been delivered by Gen. Petraeus to his commander in chief, Obama simply cannot back down again. If he does not stand up now for U.S. interests, which are being imperiled by Israeli actions, he will lose the backing of his soldiers.”

But the Israel bashers are making two major errors in interpreting Petraeus’s position, as he clearly described it to me on Wednesday. The first is that Israel’s critics see the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as central to our challenges, while Petraeus says it’s one of many factors “that influence the strategic context in which we operate.” The conflict was important enough to mention in a 56-page report that Central Command presented to the Senate Armed Services Committee, but he did not mention it in his own opening remarks before the committee. (For a rundown of what else was in the report, check out this post by Michael Weiss.) 

The second major mistake opponents of Israel are making about Petraeus is to conflate his saying the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is important, with taking sides in the conflict one way or another. Petraeus is making the narrow point that whether there is progress on the peace front (or a lack thereof) will affect the regional dynamics. That isn’t the same as taking the position that the primary barrier to peace is that Jews are building homes where they aren’t supposed to, and if only we could get Jews to stop living in the wrong places, then we’d be able to create peace. It isn’t saying anything about Israeli intransigence. And he certainly isn’t saying that U.S. lives are being put at risk by Israel. As Petraeus told me, “There is no mention of lives anywhere in there. I actually reread the statement. It doesn’t say that at all.” Yes, as Duss notes, he did say that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton “articulately and clearly conveyed our policy.” But as a military officer, he can’t set U.S. policy, so of course he’s going to want to publicly affirm that he supports current policy.

Furthermore, Petraeus also mentioned that there were “a whole bunch of extremist organizations, some of which by the way deny Israel’s right to exist.” So I could just as easily claim that Petraeus thinks America should put more pressure on Palestinians to abandon terrorism, and that he thinks that their unwillingness to recognize Israel’s right to exist is the true barrier to peace, and thus, makes his job harder. But I won’t, because I don’t want to put any words in his mouth.

It’s pretty amazing the lengths that critics of Israel will go to in order to distort the facts. Petraeus said that blogs had “spun” his position, and by the context of his remarks, it was clear that the blogs he was referring to were the ones operated by critics of Israel who were trying to suggest he was affirming their own views. At the same time, he argued that Max Boot at Commentary had “picked apart this whole thing, as he typically does, pretty astutely.” Boot’s follow up on the matter is here. But honestly, if you’re interested in this topic and haven’t done so already, just watch the video of Petraeus explaining his own position.