Israeli-Palestinian peace talks getting underway Monday evening in Washington should – if they bear fruit – remove a longstanding security issue faced by U.S. military leaders across the Middle East and Afghanistan, comments by former U.S. Central Command chiefs indicate.
Marine Gen. James Mattis, speaking July 20 at the Aspen Security Forum in Colorado, said the decades-old dispute was a constant security concern for him as CentCom commander because otherwise moderate Arab allies saw the U.S. as Israel’s advocate first.
“I paid a military security price every day as commander of CentCom because the Americans were seen biased in support of Israel, and that [constrains] all the moderate Arabs who want to be with us, because they can’t come out publicly and support a people who don’t show respect for the Arab Palestinians,” Mattis said during a discussion with forum moderator Wolf Blitzer of CNN.
CentCom covers 20 countries, from Egypt in North Africa up through Kazakhstan, along the southern border of Russia, but excludes Israel and the Palestinian Territories.
Mattis is not the first CentCom commander to make that point. In March 2010 then-Gen. David Petraeus told Congress that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict adversely affects military missions throughout the region and helps expand the influence of Iran, al Qaida, Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas on the Gaza Strip.
“Israeli-Palestinian tensions often flare into violence and large-scale armed confrontations [throughout the area of operations],” he testified. “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.”
Mattis called U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s efforts to bring Israeli and Palestinians back to the negotiating table as “valiant.”
“He’s right on target for what he’s doing,” Mattis said. “I just hope the protagonists want peace and a two-state solution as much as he does.”
Initial talks – intended to work out a “procedural workplan” for negotiations in the coming months – are to begin Monday evening and continue on Tuesday, the State Department said in announcing the breakthrough discussion on Sunday. Israel will be represented by Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and Yitzhak Molcho; the Palestinians will be represented by Chief Negotiator Saeb Erekat and Mohammad Shtayyeh, the announcement stated.
Kerry announced on Monday that former U.S. Ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk would oversee the talks as U.S. Special Envoy for Israeli-Palestinian Negotiations.
There have not been serious talks on resolving the conflict in about five years. Former Sen. George Mitchell resigned as the U.S. negotiator in 2011 after two years of trying to broker talks that never really got off the ground.
Kerry said on July 19 that both sides had reached agreement on the basis for resuming direct final status negotiations. According to reports it was Israel’s commitment to freeing 104 Palestinian prisoners that finally sealed the deal to start talks.
What the two sides need to resolve at the table will be much more difficult, including the fate of Jewish settlements that dot the West Bank, a decision on borders for the two states, the final status of Jerusalem – which both sides claim as a national capital – and what to do about the hundreds of thousands of Palestinians living as refugees, not only in Gaza and the West Bank, but elsewhere in the Middle East.
While consecutive U.S., Israel and the Palestinian Authority governments have called for a two-state solution for decades, observers have watched with dismay as expanded and new Israeli settlements on the West Bank threaten that solution.
Mattis, in his Aspen talk, said “the current situation is unsustainable.”
“We’ve got to find a way to make the two-state solution that Democrat and Republican administrations have supported,” he said. “We’ve got to get there. And the chances for it, as the King of Jordan has pointed out, are starting to ebb because of the settlements.”
If Israel has a settlement deep in the West Bank and expands its national borders to include it, Mattis said, and along with it all the Arab inhabitants, “then it ceases to be a Jewish state.
“Or you say the Arabs to get to vote: Apartheid. That didn’t work to well the last time I saw that practiced in a country,” he said.