The Common Good

Can Petraeus Push the U.S. Toward Peace in the Middle East?

The taboo was finally broken and the genie is out of the bottle, despite some attempts to force it back. America's military leaders have had enough and decided to speak out about the liability that a hard-line Israel causes to America's national interest.

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Popular American General David Petraeus finally said the words that many have been saying behind closed doors for decades. The statement of the star-studded general puts American blind support for Israel in direct opposition to the country's most sacred institution, the military.

To be fair, hints to this effect have been leaking out of Washington for some time now. President George W. Bush and his secretary of state Condoleezza Rice made the opening salvo in this direction when they said publicly that the creation of an independent Palestinian state is in the interest of the United States.

President Barack Obama repeated this statement in numerous speeches, including in his historic talk at Cairo University. But for some reason, such statements, as important as they were, did not resonate in the U.S. or with the Israelis. Some Palestinian and pro-Palestinian forces in the U.S. attempted to build on them, but for the most part that effort didn't register in America's political or media landscape.

But when the top U.S. military general responsible for the lives of hundreds of thousands of Americans says so, people stop and listen. It is difficult for hard-line pro-Israel forces, whether coming from American Jewish circles or right-wing American Christian fundamentalists, to argue with a general as popular as Petraeus. Ironically, many of these right-wing forces are always in praise of the army and have been pushing for the same Petraeus to run for president.

Since this genie has finally been released from the bottle, it is difficult to see how it will be possible to ignore it. While hardline forces have been careful not to publicly challenge Petraeus's statement, many behind-the-scenes efforts have attempted to reverse it. One such effort, as reported in the liberal Israeli daily Haaretz, has been carried out by the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs (JINSA). The organisation succeeded in getting 50 former U.S. generals and admirals to sign a letter in support of Israel. Ironically, as Amir Oren reports, the letter that praises the shared values between America and Israel doesn't mention the words "Palestinians, Jerusalem, construction and territories."

The author of the article reflects the weakness of this attempt by noting that "the retired officers, who visit Israel on JINSA tours with their wives, are taken on informative trips."

Efforts such as this letter are unlikely to immediately persuade senior military officers such as Petraeus to back down from their positions. But they do register with Pentagon officials, and without any effort from the other side to counter this effort, it might result in the generals being more careful about making their points known in the future.

For the most part, the Arab side's pressure is mostly political and at the government level. Arab heads of state and foreign ministers have become much more vocal and unified in their consistent request for a much more neutral U.S. effort in the Middle East conflict. King Abdullah's recent interview with the conservative Wall Street Journal included some of the harshest statements ever made by an Arab head of state regarding Israel and its policies and actions in Palestine, especially in Jerusalem. The monarch stated that Jerusalem is a ticking bomb that must be defused and that Jordan-Israel relations are at their lowest point for decades.

While Arab support is important, it must be supported by various other efforts. Obama and his administration, as well as military officers, must be publicly praised in various forums for their steadfastness and their demands for a just solution to the cause of Palestine.

Activities in Palestine must continue to be limited to popular and nonviolent protests. Nothing can help Israel more than the excuse of having to respond to a violent act by Palestinians or Arabs, whether in Gaza, Jerusalem, or south Lebanon.

Petraeus has made a courageous statement that could play a key role in weakening the hard-line pro-Israel lobby and allow for a much more balanced U.S. approach to the Middle East conflict. While Palestinians and Arabs always felt that such statements were obvious, they need to publicly support such positions and, at the same time, avoid any statements or actions that would embarrass these brave American military and political officials.

portrait-daoud-kuttabDaoud Kuttab is a Palestinian Christian journalist and a former Ferris Professor of Journalism at Princeton University.

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