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Wednesday, March 17, 2010     GET REAL

Petraeus: 'Credible effort on Arab-Israeli issues' needed for regional security

WASHINGTON — The U.S. military has determined that cooperation in the Muslim world was hampered by Washington's relationship with Israel.   

U.S. Central Command has assessed that its programs in the Middle East and other areas were harmed by Muslim criticism of Israel, Middle East Newsline reported. The military command deemed Arab-Israeli tension a major driver of instability and obstacle to security.

"The enduring hostilities between Israel and some of its neighbors present distinct challenges to our ability to advance our interests in the AOR [area of responsibility]," Centcom chief Gen. David Petraeus said.

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In a statement to the Senate Armed Services Committee, Petraeus listed what he termed "insufficient progress toward a comprehensive Middle East peace" as a leading obstacle to U.S. military cooperation. The Centcom chief ranked this over such regional threats as weapons of mass destruction and Al Qaida.

"Israeli-Palestinian tensions often flare into violence and large-scale armed confrontations," Petraeus said on March 16. "The conflict foments anti-American sentiment, due to a perception of U.S. favoritism for Israel. Arab anger over the Palestinian question limits the strength and depth of U.S. partnerships with governments and peoples in the AOR and weakens the legitimacy of moderate regimes in the Arab world."

Centcom said both Iran and Al Qaida have exploited Muslim anger toward Israel. He said Teheran has used Arab-Israel tension to extend its influence throughout the Middle East.

"The conflict also gives Iran influence in the Arab world through its clients, Lebanese Hizbullah and Hamas," Petraeus said.

Petraeus's statement was said to reflect the view of senior officers in Centcom. Centcom officers, based on a December 2009 tour of the Middle East and Gulf, reported widespread Arab frustration over the resolve of the United States in helping its allies.

"Everywhere they went, the message was pretty humbling," a senior Pentagon officer was quoted in a report on the Centcom tour by "America was not only viewed as weak, but its military posture in the region was eroding."

Later, sources on the Senate Armed Services Committee said members had been briefed on the Centcom tour of the Middle East. They said both U.S. allies and adversaries have concluded that Washington was withdrawing from the region.

"I am concerned that we are heading toward a situation in the broader Middle East where our friends don't trust us and our enemies don't fear us, because both doubt our staying power, our determination, and our resolve," Sen. John McCain, the ranking Republican on the committee, said. "We may be heading there, but we aren't there yet. And though this perceived lack of U.S. commitment may take a lot of time and effort to reverse."

The U.S. military assessment was said to have been cited by Vice President Joseph Biden during his visit to Israel in March 2010. Biden, angered over Israel's decision to build 1,600 apartments in Jerusalem, was quoted as having deemed Israel's actions as harmful to U.S. military efforts.

"What you're doing here undermines the security of our troops who are fighting in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan," Biden was quoted as telling Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

At the hearing, McCain asked Petraeus whether Muslim anger against the United States was based in the rejection of Israel's existence. McCain also asked Petraeus what could be done to reduce Israeli-U.S. tensions.

"Isn't it true that the Israelis left Gaza on presumption that there would be progress and instead they got rocket attacks?" McCain asked.

For his part, Petraeus called for an intensification in U.S. efforts to achieve peace between Israel and the Arabs. The general said a peaceful Syria would also help block Iranian support to such proxies as Hamas and Hizbullah.

"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," Petraeus said. "Additionally, progress on the Israel-Syria peace track could disrupt Iran's lines of support to Hamas and Hizbullah."

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