In addition to the main debate over whether the Obama administration was correct to upbraid the Netanyahu government over the timing of its East Jerusalem construction announcement (and over the construction itself), a secondary dispute has emerged, whose implications may well come to trump the larger debate. They center around the following statement, reportedly made by Vice President Joe Biden to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last week:

This is starting to get dangerous for us. What you’re doing here undermines the security of our troops who are fighting in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. That endangers us and it endangers regional peace.

A senior administration official clarifies—for Tablet Magazine contributing editor Jeffrey Goldberg—that Biden does not believe that U.S. soldiers are put at direct risk by East Jerusalem building; he thinks, rather, that such construction makes it more difficult, from diplomatic and P.R. standpoint, for the U.S. military to achieve its objectives. “The extent to which Israel aggressively pursues peace,” the official said, makes efforts to sanction Iran, cultivate peace between Israel and its neighbors, and fight the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq “easier.”

It seems unlikely that Biden meant it literally; and it seems extremely unlikely that, taken literally, it’s accurate. But the meme that the special relationship with Israel is something of a problem for the United States, and particularly for the U.S. military, in fact has gained traction—particularly in the military.

And it is potentially explosive. If the debate over Israel travels from “what’s best for Israel” to “supporting the troops,” then it could become a real thing. Folks on one side could argue that getting tough with Israel’s government is a question not only of right versus wrong but of American national security; folks on the other side could argue that American supporters of Israel are being unfairly and inaccurately accused of a dual loyalty in a way that recalls classical, troubling charges about Jews everywhere.

Even when the Anti-Defamation League’s Abraham Foxman chastised Israel last week, he also insisted that Biden’s statement about the troops “unnecessarily called into question Israel’s role as an ally and the impact on American interests.” He expanded on this earlier today, condemning what he called the “linkage fantasy”—the notion that, “if you just resolve this conflict, everything else will fall into place: Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, America’s war with fundamentalist Islam.”’

As a prime example of the fantasy, Foxman cited a blogpost that appeared over the weekend at Foreign Policy, reporting that Gen. David Petraeus had requested that the Palestinian territories (though not Israel) be included under his purview, CENTCOM—which currently includes most of the Middle East and Central Asia, including both Iraq and Afghanistan. According to FP,

the briefers reported that there was a growing perception among Arab leaders that the U.S. was incapable of standing up to Israel, that CENTCOM’s mostly Arab constituency was losing faith in American promises, that Israeli intransigence on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was jeopardizing U.S. standing in the region …

Petraeus’s reason was straightforward: with U.S. troops deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. military had to be perceived by Arab leaders as engaged in the region’s most troublesome conflict.

The Wall Street Journal reported something similar yesterday (although the following paragraphs have been scrubbed from the version that currently appears online):

The Pentagon has voiced growing concerns about the impact of the stalled Arab-Israeli peace process on broader U.S. security interests in the Middle East. Senior U.S. defense officials and military planners worry that the lack of progress is hindering American efforts to persuade oil-rich nations like Saudi Arabia to use their economic leverage over China to persuade Beijing to back tougher sanctions on Iran.

Gen. David Petraeus, the head of the military’s Central Command, sent a team to the Pentagon recently to brief members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff on Arab concerns about the impasse.

If the idea that U.S. support for Israel, combined with the current Israeli leadership’s beliefs and behavior, gains wider credence, then U.S. opinion about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will become unprecedentedly polarized.

Did Joe Biden Say What People Think He Said? [Jeffrey Goldberg]
Foxman: Don’t Blame The Jews [JPost]
The Petraeus Briefing: Biden’s Embarassment Is Not the Whole Story [Foreign Policy]