Top U.S. Army Official: Mideast Peace Stalemate Endangers American Interests in Region

Marine Corps Gen. James Mattis, head of U.S. Central Command, says non-resolution of Israel-Palestine conflict exacts 'steep price'; says Iran poses greatest threat to U.S. regional interests.

During an annual briefing Tuesday in the U.S. Congress, Marine Corps Gen. James Mattis, head of the Central Command, issued a warning about a continued impasse in the Israel-Palestine conflict. He said that the political awakening in the Arab world has caused regimes in the region to be more attentive than ever to the emotions of their populations. The current stalemate between Israel and the Palestinians, he declared, cannot continue; what is needed is the renewal of an Israeli-Arab drive for peace based on a two-state solution. The non-resolution of the conflict, he added, exacts a "steep price" and complicates the activities of forces under his command.

Mattis' remarks made a distinct impression on his listeners, particularly in view of the attitude of neglect demonstrated by President Barack Obama, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and other top U.S. officials toward the stalled Israel-Palestinian peace process. His comments are also significant in light of his manifestly sympathetic orientation toward the Israel Defense Forces. Mattis, 61, is friendly with senior IDF officers with whom he worked during his decades of service; among others, he is acquainted with Maj. Gen. Shai Avital, head of the Special Forces Command, and Kfir Brigade Commander Col. David Menachem.

Mahmoud Abbas and Benjamin Netanyahu, AP

The annual briefing by the Centcome commander is given to the military affairs committees of both the Senate and the House Representatives. In his comments, Mattis said that the issue of continuing stalemate on the Israel-Palestinian track comes up in almost every meeting he holds with key leaders in the region. "A peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians will foster stable public support among our partners in the region for American initiatives," Mattis claimed, "and it will reinforce regional cooperation." He added that such an agreement would also hamper the efforts of extremist groups, saying: "Our obligation to future generations is to do our utmost to solve this vexing problem, which throws oil on the flames of extremist ideologies."

Mattis described the so-called Arab Spring as a historical transformation that primarily reflects erosion in the social contract between regimes and peoples in Arab states. There is no guarantee that this process of collapse will lead to the formation of democratic governments, he warned; and widespread American involvement is necessary in this period of uncertainty. Expectations that the ferment will culminate in democratization are fading, he warned; but he also noted that regimes that caused injustice or that ignored public needs have already fallen, or are in a tailspin, as in the Syrian example.

Mattis hinted that the successful international campaign to topple Muammar Gaddafi's regime in Libya may not be repeat itself in Syria's case, in view of opposition that Iran and other forces would likely display to armed intervention from outside. As a counter-example to the success in Libya, Mattis cited developments in Yemen, where stabilization efforts on the part of the Americans, in cooperation with other Persian Gulf states, have had limited effect, due to the counter-campaign staged by Iran and Al-Qaida.

The war against Al-Qaida has not ended, Mattis said, but it is "Iran [that] poses the greatest threat to American interests, our friends and to the stability of the region." Iran, he added, even poses a global threat, owing to its network of proxies; this threat was manifest in the recent wave of attempted terror attacks.

With the conclusion of the armed intervention in Iraq, and as the end to America's armed presence in Afghanistan draws near, America's military effort in the region will depend increasingly on air force and navy units, and special forces, said Mattis. He warned against trends of reducing the scope of naval forces in the Persian Gulf - a reduction that would be unjustifiable, in view the threat posed by Iran on sea routes by deployment of its missiles, sea mines, boats and submarines.

In terms of U.S. relations with Egypt, Mattis stated that they will remain "challenging" as that country seeks to develop "full democracy." Thanks to relations maintained by the U.S. Army with Egypt's supreme military council, the situation in Egypt is better than circumstances in Syria, he said. He also praised his forces' relations with Lebanon's army (which serves as a "counterweight," he suggested, to Hezbollah ) and with Jordan's military.

Israel is not included in the geographic swath covered by Centcom, and it maintains relations with the U.S. Army mainly by way of the European Command. EUCOM commander, Adm. James G. Stavridis, told Congress last week that a major drill planned for next fall with the IDF will have five stages, and feature an array of land and air forces. In addition, the U.S. Marine Corps is interested in carrying out training exercises with the IDF.