Analysts: Israel PM's Visit Complicates Risk to Troops and ISIS Fight

In this Dec. 3, 2014, file photo, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a faction meeting at the Knesset, in Jerusalem (AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner, File)
In this Dec. 3, 2014, file photo, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a faction meeting at the Knesset, in Jerusalem (AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner, File)

House Speaker John Boehner's invitation to Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu to speak before Congress puts the U.S.-Iran nuclear talks in jeopardy, but also complicates the Arab coalition formed to defeat ISIS and complicates the risk to U.S troops stationed abroad, according to military and foreign policy analysts.

Netanyahu is slated to speak to a joint session of Congress on March 3. His appearance was orchestrated by Boehner through Israel's ambassador to the U.S. Though Democrat lawmakers have widely criticized the move, most are expected to attend the speech.

Obama said he will not meet with Netanyahu during his visit, saying White House policy is to put off visits by heads of state visits close to their reelection bid. He also said it would likely destroy the progress American negotiators have made with Iran toward a nuclear deal.

Analysts said Netanyau's address would put the Iran deal at risk, but would not scuttle the Arab coalition because countries like Jordan and Egypt need help in defeating militants aligned with Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, known as ISIS or Daesh, across the Middle East.

James Carafano, vice president of the Heritage Foundation's Foreign and Defense Policy Studies, points out that none of the Arab states want ISIS to remain a force, so are not going to let any U.S. bias toward Israel interfere with their alliance.

And while Israel does not want to see any cooperation between the U.S. and Iran, it is also not about to interfere with the anti-ISIS campaign, according to Lawrence Korb, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and former assistant secretary of defense.

"Basically the Israelis don't want to see Iraq and Syria crumble and come under the control of ISIS," Korb said.

Risk to Troops?

Opinions were split if the Israeli prime minister's appearance would increase the risk to U.S. service members. One group felt any additional show of support with Israel could put troops in danger, while others said the U.S.-Israel relationship is well known and poses no additional risk to U.S. troops.

"The military understands what the increasingly biased attitude towards Israel means for it. It means a red bull's-eye on their backs everywhere they go. If for nothing else, because of that," said Lawrence Wilkerson, a retired Army colonel and former chief of staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell.

Carafano disagreed, calling it "the most naive criticism [of the Netanyahu invitation] anyone can come up with."

"The strategic relationship [with Israel] has been what it's been for decades, and it's not something the Arabs don't know about," he said. "The notion that Arab nations are myopically anti-Israel or put the Palestinian issue above all else, that's a bogus mythology."

Americans troops have in the past been targeted by groups angry with U.S. policy, most recently in Turkey where several American sailors were harassed and punched by Turkish nationalists shouting "Yankee go home."

It is also common to see American flags burned by demonstrators protesting Israeli actions. Even in Jordan, considered a close U.S. ally, some tribes have called American military personnel "legitimate targets."

Retired Army Maj. Gen. Paul Eaton, now a senior advisor with National Security Network, a Washington, DC-based foreign policy think tank, said the Netanyahu invitation feeds into the hard-line views on all sides.

"So many people want to see a military solution to every problem we've got in foreign policy," Eaton said in a Feb. 11 interview. "What we are seeing [with the Netanyahu invitation] is an effort to frustrate the diplomatic process right now to solve our problems with a use of military power against the Iranians."

Eaton said scuttling diplomacy is "not in the interest of the United States and not in the interest of the armed forces of the United States."

However, Carafano said Arab countries do not expect the United States to behave fairly in its dealings in the region.

"We're not a fair broker over there and the Arabs are never going to see us that way ... that's living in the land of magical thinking," he said. "If we are perceived as a fair broker we're perceived as irrelevant. Notions of fairness and impartiality – those are incredibly western things that have no applications, especially in the Middle East. When they say that, they're only using our argument against us."

When the U.S. does try to be impartial, it comes across to Arab leaders as weakness, Carafano said.   "Because the Arabs we recognize we're not acting in our own interests, and they respect us less for that," he said. "They interpret it as us being stupid, or suspect that we're secretly acting in our own interest and being devious."

Military Price

Eaton and Wilkerson said Pentagon leaders have previously made these points to lawmakers in closed door meetings. But even those who take it to heart and agree will not say so on the House or Senate floor or out in public.

Retired Marine Gen. James Mattis, who as commander of U.S. Central Command from 2010 to 2013 oversaw wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, noted that American troops face increased threats by the country's close identification with Israeli policies and actions.

"I paid a military-security price every day as the commander of CentCom because the Americans were seen as biased in support of Israel," Mattis said in a talk at the Aspen Security Forum in 2013.

His predecessor at CentCom, Gen. David Petraeus, told Congress that in 2010, stating in testimony that the perception that the U.S. favors Israel in the longtime Israel-Palestine conflict was among the "root causes" of instability in the region and an obstacle to security,

"As such, progress toward resolving the political disputes in the Levant, particularly the Arab-Israeli conflict, is a major concern for CENTCOM," Petraeus stated in his testimony.

-- Bryant Jordan can be reached at bryant.jordan@military.com

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