IPS NEWS AGENCY
WASHINGTON — Despite assurances by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton Tuesday that the United States and Israel share a "close, unshakeable bond", the week-old crisis between the two allies continued to percolate here Tuesday.
Washington cancelled a planned trip to the region by its special Middle East peace envoy, while its top regional military commander warned that the failure to make progress in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations and the "perception" that the U.S. favored Israel in that conflict were damaging to U.S. security interests and allies in the Arab world and helped al Qaeda and Iran gain influence.
"Israeli-Palestinian tensions often flare into violence and large-scale armed confrontations, Gen. David Petraeus, the chief of the U.S. Central Command (Centcom), told members of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
"The conflict foments anti-American sentiment, due to a perception of U.S. favoritism for Israel," he added.
Meanwhile, Israel and its U.S. supporters ginned up what appears to be a major campaign to blame the ongoing crisis on the administration of President Barack Obama just days before the scheduled arrival here of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu.
Along with Clinton herself, Netanyahu is slated to keynote the annual conference of the "Israel Lobby's" most powerful organization, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC).
A statement released by the powerful Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations charged that the "unusually harsh comments made since (the return of Vice President Joseph Biden from Israel last week) by members of the Administration have resulted in increased tensions" and called for Washington to exert pressure on the Palestinians to return to peace talks.
The lengthy statement, which in part tracked a memo that the Israeli Embassy here reportedly distributed to sympathetic organizations and Congressional offices Monday, was a reference to statements by Clinton and Obama's top political aide, David Axelrod, among others, over the weekend.
They called Israel's announcement that it planned to build 1,600 new homes for Jews in Arab East Jerusalem - which is still considered occupied territory by the U.S. and the world's other major powers — during Biden's visit to Israel last week "insulting" and an "affront" that undermined U.S. security interests in the region.
In a brief press appearance with the Irish foreign minister Tuesday, Clinton denied that the contretemps amounted to the worst bilateral crisis with Israel since 1975, as the Israeli ambassador, Michael Oren, reportedly described it Saturday night.
"I don't buy that," she said, insisting that Washington retained an "absolute commitment to Israel's security." At the same time, however, she noted that Washington was "engaged in a very active consultation with the Israelis over steps that we think would demonstrate the requisite commitment to this (peace) process."
Coupled with the announcement that Obama's special envoy for Arab-Israeli peace, Sen. George Mitchell, would not travel to the region this week to formally convene "proximity talks" between the Palestine Authority (PA) and Israel as had been planned, her remarks suggested that Washington has yet to receive a "formal response" from Israel to demands she made in a 45-minute phone conversation with Netanyahu Friday.
According to the Israeli press, those demands included reversing the last week's housing announcement; offering a substantial gesture, such as a major prisoner release, to the Palestinians; and agreeing to peace talks that include final-status issues, including the fate of Palestinian refugees and East Jerusalem, as well as borders.
Clinton is to meet with her counterparts from the Middle East Quartet — the European Union (EU), Russia, the United Nations, and the U.S. — later this week in Moscow. They are expected to rally behind the U.S. position, exerting more pressure on Netanyahu on the eve of his arrival here for the AIPAC conference.
While the delay in Mitchell's trip underscored the administration's continuing displeasure with the Israeli prime minister, however, Petraeus's testimony before the Senate committee made it clear that the military brass increasingly sees the perpetuation of the Israeli-Palestinian/Arab conflict as a major obstacle to U.S. strategic aims in the broader region, a link that Israel and its supporters here have long rejected.
In his prepared testimony, Petraeus, who until now has been hailed by many pro-Likud neo-conservatives here as the greatest U.S. military commander of his generation and possible presidential material 2012, argued that "Arab anger over the Palestinian question limits the strength and depth of U.S. partnerships with governments and peoples in the AOR (CentCom's Area of Responsibility) 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 Hizbollah and Hamas," he added.
Elaborating on that theme, he said that "A credible U.S. effort on Arab-Israeli issues that provides regional governments and populations a way to achieve a comprehensive settlement of the disputes would undercut Iran's policy of militant 'resistance,' which the Iranian regime and insurgent groups have been free to exploit."
"...(P)rogress toward resolving the political disputes in the Levant, particularly the Arab-Israeli conflict, is a major concern for Centcom," he asserted, adding that the persistence of the Arab-Israeli conflict had an "enormous effect" on the strategic context in which we operate..."
Daniel Levy, an Israeli former peace negotiator based at the New America Foundation here, said, "To the extent to which the latest events have given rise to a debate over whether there is linkage between a broader American security interest and a credible peace process, Petraeus weighed in today in the most unequivocal terms by articulating at some length not only the existence of that interest and linkage, but also just how front and centre it is to the military."
"What Petraeus made clear — and that should be a wake-up call for Israel — is that the unresolved Palestinian-Israeli conflict and the entrenched occupation are placing an increasingly unbearable burden on the U.S.-Israel relationship, and the best way to address it would obviously be to resolve that conflict," he added.
According to a widely read article published by foreignpolicy.com last weekend, the administration's tougher stance toward Israel and its settlement policies over the past week was due in major part to growing frustration and concern by Petraeus and other military commanders over the loss of U.S. credibility in the region resulting from Washington's failure to rein in Israel, particularly with respect to the expansion of Jewish settlements.
Jim Lobe's blog on U.S. foreign policy can be read at http://www.ips.org/blog/jimlobe/.