Why US sees Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a security threat

A growing roster of US officials is arguing that a failure to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict fuels Islamic extremism, thus creating a security threat for the US.

Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton speaks with special envoy for Mideast peace, George Mitchell during talks in Moscow, Russia, Friday.

As the United States and Israel navigate one of their most serious contretemps in years, a growing roster of American officials is making the argument that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict poses a national-security threat to the US.

Prominent figures – ranging from Gen. David Petraeus, head of the US Central Command, to presidential adviser David Axelrod – have recently espoused the theory that a failure to resolve the decades-old crisis fuels Islamic extremism and Iranian designs in the region. Moreover, the thinking goes, the US appears weak and open to disregard when an ally such as Israel openly challenges American diplomatic efforts. America has been widely viewed in the region as the sole power able to force the two sides in the conflict to take actions toward peace.

Attempts to get past the US-Israeli dust-up continued Friday: In Moscow, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had come through with a “useful and productive” response to the challenge she made to Israel last week to demonstrate its commitment to the peace process.

Secretary Clinton was in Moscow for a meeting of the Quartet of powers promoting Middle East peace (the US, Russia, the European Union, and the United Nations). They demanded in a statement that Israel cease all settlement activity in East Jerusalem. But indirect talks between the sides could begin soon, said Quartet leaders, including the group’s envoy, Tony Blair.

This weekend, the State Department announced, Middle East envoy George Mitchell with meet Mr. Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in the region.

The national-security argument, linking US interests to peace, is one reason that the Obama administration reacted so strongly to Israel’s announcement of new Jewish settlements in Arab East Jerusalem. The announcement came during Vice President Joe Biden’s visit to Israel last week.

Still, US officials ranging from President Obama to Clinton prefaced all their public remarks on the falling out with an unwavering American commitment to Israel’s security.

For some, an underlying argument is that Israel doesn’t act in its own interest when it takes actions that undermine US national security.

However, the national-security argument is rejected by a number of Republicans and Democrats on the Hill. They maintain that the challenge of Islamist extremism is separate from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and that the US should not allow any red herrings to disrupt US-Israeli ties. But reports that Mr. Biden advanced a form of the argument in meetings with Israeli officials suggest the perspective’s wide reach in the administration. Biden linked Israel’s dedication to the peace process to smoother sailing for the US in its efforts in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan.

Some experts in Middle East affairs say they understand where the administration argument originates, but add that it nevertheless places too much of the onus for peacemaking on Israel.

“The administration has embraced the Arab consensus relayed to it through the military, and that is understandable because the Central Command deals almost entirely with Arab and Muslim countries,” says James Phillips, a specialist in Middle East issues at the Heritage Foundation in Washington. “But when you come down to it, the US is asking Israel to make concessions that would undermine its own security in order to improve US cooperation with Muslim states.”

An Israeli-Palestinian accord “would have some impact on improved US security,” Mr. Phillips agrees. But it would be in a “much more hazy sense of an improved American image in the region,” compared with Israel’s “concrete security concerns,” he says.

But others say a stalled peace effort, and specifically Israel’s direct challenges to US power, pose a concrete threat to American strategic interests.

Leslie Gelb, a US foreign-policy expert with the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, said in a recent opinion piece that Israel’s settlement activities, in direct defiance of US calls for all parties to avoid “provocative” steps, are “self-defeating” because the “insult” seriously damages American power in the Middle East.

Mr. Gelb called the US-Israeli alliance unquestioned and Israel specifically a " ‘strategic aircraft carrier’ for America in a chaotic part of the world.” He added in the piece, which appeared on the website The Daily Beast, “If Israelis further complicate an already complicated Middle East, it won't be good for the US or for Israel.”

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