By Yaakov Katz, Jerusalem Post – 25 March 2010
Commander of the United States Military’s Central Command (CENTCOM) Gen. David Petraeus telephoned IDF Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi on Wednesday night to reassure Israel that comments attributed to him regarding supposed Israeli intransigence were spun out of context.
Last week, Petraeus gave testimony before the Senate’s Armed Services Committee. A 56-page report which CENTCOM had submitted alongside Petraeus’s verbal testimony caused a storm after it claimed that Israeli intransigence was a problem for the US military and was fomenting conflict in the Middle East.
“The enduring hostilities between Israel and some of its neighbors present distinct challenges to our ability to advance our interests,” the CENTCOM report read. “Arab anger over the Palestinian question limits the strength and depth of US partnerships with governments and peoples in the [Middle East] and weakens the legitimacy of moderate regimes in the Arab world.”
The above statement, which appeared in the report but was not said by Petraeus in his verbal testimony, was pounced upon by critics of Israel as confirmation of what many of them have said for years – that Israel is the source of instability in the region.
On Wednesday, though, Petraeus poured cold water on the written testimony and in an appearance at St. Anselm College in New Hampshire, told reporters that his testimony had been spun by bloggers.
“There’s a 56-page document that we submitted that has a statement in it that describes various factors that influence the strategic context in which we operate and among those we listed the Mideast peace process,” he said according to a transcript of the press conference which appeared on the website of the American Spectator. “We noted in there that there was a perception at times that America sides with Israel and so forth. And I mean, that is a perception. It is there. I don’t think that’s disputable. But I think people inferred from what that said and then repeated it a couple of times and bloggers picked it up and spun it. And I think that has been unhelpful, frankly.”
The report, he continued, included additional “perceptions” in the Middle East, which CENTCOM is responsible for, including the fact that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad denies the Holocaust as well as Israel’s right to exist.
“So we have all the factors in there, but this is just one, and it was pulled out of this 56-page document, which was not what I read to the Senate at all,” he said.
During the brief press conference and following a question by American Spectator reporter Philip Klein, Petraeus revealed that he had called the IDF chief of staff, who he referred to as “Gabi,” and reassured him that the reports were inaccurate.
The IDF Spokesman’s Office confirmed that the two had spoken and officials said that the fact that Petraeus referred to Ashkenazi as “Gabi” was a likely sign of the close ties between the two generals.
Following the reports that emerged last week, Israeli defense officials expressed grave concern with the remarks attributed to Petraeus, warning that it could represent a downturn in Israeli-US military ties. Officials said Thursday that it was possible that the remarks, attributed to Petraeus, who had been touted as a possible Republican candidate in the 2012 elections, were purposely blown out of context by the Obama administration.
While backing away from remarks that Israel was the source of instability, Petraeus did stand by the CENTCOM report’s assertion that there were leaders in the region who held this view.
“If you go to the moderate leaders in the Arab world they will tell you that the lack of progress in the Mideast peace process causes them problems,” he said. “Their concern is that those who promote violence in Gaza and the West Bank will claim that because there is no progress diplomatically, they only way to get progress is through violence and that is their concern and that is what we were really trying to convey.”
Defense officials said that the defense establishment was currently not concerned with the possibility that the diplomatic crisis with Washington would impair defense ties between the countries. Proof, the officials said, was that an IAF and Defense Ministry delegation signed a deal this week to purchase three new Hercules transport aircraft.
The deal, which had been in the works for the past year, was scheduled months ago to be signed in March and its finalization was not connected to Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s visit to the US, officials said.
“The ties are extremely strong between the defense establishments and traditionally, even when there have been ups and downs on the political level, the commitment to Israeli security has remained steadfast,” one senior Defense Ministry official said.