The Cable

Petraeus: I never formally asked for command of the Palestinian territories

Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. military commander in the Middle East, did not formally request that the West Bank and Gaza be placed under his command's domain, he told a Senate panel Tuesday.

Petraeus was reacting to an article on Foreign Policy's Middle East Channel last week reporting that he briefed the Joint Chiefs of Staff about his concerns over how a lack of progress in the dispute between Israel and the Palestinians could jeopardize U.S. national security interests. The article originally stated that Petraeus followed up with a white paper sent to the White House that recommended the Palestinian territories be taken out of European Command's area of responsibility and placed with his own Central Command.

But in testimony today before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Petraeus denied that he made such a request and downplayed the discussions that he and other senior military leaders have had over the issue.

"Although some staff members have, various times, and I have discussed and you know, asking for the Palestinian territories or something like that to be added ... I have never made that a formal recommendation for the Unified Command Plan, and that was not in what I submitted this year," Petraeus said. "Nor have I sent a memo to the White House on any of this."

The article was updated to say that CENTCOM did in fact recommend that the Palestinian territories be added to its portfolio, but made that recommendation to the Joint Chiefs, not the White House.

On Tuesday, a senior military official close to Joint Chiefs Chairman Michael Mullen emailed Foreign Policy to say that "while the Chairman certainly did receive a briefing by Gen. Petraeus' team, he was not ‘stunned' by it. Indeed, he found it somewhat out of date."

Retired Admiral William "Fox" Fallon, who was CENTCOM commander from 2007 to 2008, said that when he was in charge of the region, discussion about adding parts of Israel and the Palestinian territories to his portfolio was commonplace.

"It's been discussed in the past and I'm open to that kind of discussion when the time is right," Fallon told The Cable. "Frankly, during my time it wasn't right because we had two burning hot wars going on and didn't really need another major diplomatic challenge."

"From my perspective, in many respects it might be easier because the whole rest of the Middle East is part of CENTCOM, but in the end that's going to be a political decision," Fallon explained. "There are certain advantages to having it all in one pot but there's a lot friction there. Certainly it's worth exploring..."

Overall, Petraeus testified that the tensions caused by the dispute between Israel and its neighbors does have an "enormous effect" on other regional issues.

"My thrust has generally been, literally, just to encourage that process that can indeed get that recognition that you talked about, and indeed get a sense of progress moving forward in the overall peace process, because of the effect that it has on particularly what I think you would term the moderate governments in our area," he told Sen. John McCain, R-AZ.

U.S. Vice President Joe Biden was reported to have told Israeli President Bibi Netanyahu that Israel's actions to stall the peace process are endangering American troops in Afghanistan, although the White House is now denying he used such stark language.

But a State Department official, speaking on background, did acknowledge the administration's feeling that the peace process and U.S. activities throughout the Middle East are closely interconnected.

"If there's hope associated with a peace process, that can have a constructive impact both in Israel and Palestine and beyond. Where a process stagnates, that can also have implications," the official said. "We understand how important this issue is not only to the immediate parties but to the region as a whole. That's why we see this process as closely identified with broader U.S. interests in the region."

Getty Images

The Cable

Cantor: U.S.-Israel row aids Iran

As more than a dozen lawmakers go on record to ask the Obama administration to end the diplomatic spat with Israel following Vice President Joe Biden's visit, some are now warning that a prolonged dispute could risk harming international efforts to contain Iran's nuclear program.

"What are we doing playing hardball with an ally like this?" asked House Minority Whip Eric Cantor, R-VA, in an interview with The Cable. "What's important here is for all of us to be focused on the nuclear threat from Iran ... We're dependent upon that ally to be with us to combat Iran's nuclear program."

Cantor phoned White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel last night to make clear his view that it's time for the administration to get over its anger at Israel for announcing the approval of 1,600 new housing units in East Jerusalem last week. He said he fears the White House is trying to capitalize on the incident to pressure the Israelis to agree to things Washington would otherwise not be able to get.

"There was an incident and no one defends the government of Israel over that, whether it was intentional or not," Cantor said. "For the White House to seize on that incident and seize on that opportunity, that says a lot about the thinking of this administration."

Cantor suggested there could be some legislative way of documenting Congress's sentiments on this issue, but no specific plans have yet surfaced.

Congressional concern over how the row will impact Iran diplomacy has been bipartisan. Democratic New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand echoed Cantor in a statement Tuesday morning.

"While the timing of the East Jerusalem housing announcement was regrettable, it must not cloud the most critical foreign policy issue facing both counties -- Iran's nuclear threat," Gillibrand said."As a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, I am focused on strengthening international pressure on Iran's regime to derail its pursuit of nuclear weapons."

Politico reports on a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton from Reps. Mark Kirk, R-IL, and Chris Carney, D-PA, which said, "While the recent controversy is regrettable, it should not overshadow the importance of the US-Israel alliance. A zoning dispute over 143 acres of Jewish land in Israel's capital city should not eclipse the growing threat we face from Iran... We urge your Administration to refrain from further public criticism of Israel and to focus on more pressing issues affecting this vital relationship, such as signing and enforcing the Iran Refined Petroleum Sanctions Act when it comes to your desk."

Former Middle East negotiator Aaron David Miller said that U.S.-Israel cooperation on Iran was crucial and should not be sacrificed over this dispute.

"You can't create a situation where we have no leverage over them and they think they're basically on their own."