Remember the scene from Woody Allen's film "Annie Hall" in which a pompous know-it-all is pontificating in a movie line about the ideas of media scholar Marshall McLuhan? After enduring the man's maundering for several minutes, Woody Allen's character pulls McLuhan himself from behind a movie poster and McLuhan himself tells the man, "You know nothing of my work."
I am reminded of that scene in the wake of the controversy surrounding remarks that it turns out were never made by General David Petraeus about Israel allegedly endangering the lives of U.S. service members.
Thanks to excellent reporting by The American Spectator's Philip Klein and (according to none other than the General himself) excellent analysis by Max Boot of Commentary magazine, we know exactly what the general did say, and what he meant.
Covering a speech by Petraeus in New Hampshire, Klein asked the general about reports of these alleged remarks. The general said he appreciated Klein's question because he had wanted to "set the record straight." He went on to explain what he did say, and what he meant, and called reports that he had said anything about Israel jeopardizing the "lives" of U.S. troops "flat wrong." Klein taped the general's response. You can watch it here.
Essentially, the general submitted a lengthy report detailing many factors influencing his job in the middle east. Israel-bashing "critics" pulled out of context a few sentences from a lengthy report in which Petraeus cites many factors as affecting his command. These critics now include Pat Buchanan. They have tried to use these lines to support a thesis that anyone who has been alive over the past several decades to witness developments including the bombing of the U.S.S. Cole, the bombings of the U.S. Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, the Oslo Accords and their aftermath, the London and Madrid bombings, and the events of and following September 11th including the U.S. overthrow of Saddam, would have to be either anti-Semitic or brain dead to swallow whole: Israel is the primary cause of anti-American sentiment in the mideast, and the U.S. should distance itself from Israel.
Listening to the General, what I understand him to be saying is that perception of a viable peace process that is moving forward is helpful to him in working with moderate Arab leaders. Conversely, a perceived lack of progress towards resolution of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict poses challenges to him in dealing with some of the region's moderate Arab leaders. He in no way laid blame on Israel for anything, although he did mention that a certain country (Iran) denies the Holocaust and also pointed out that there exist "a whole bunch of extremist organizations, some of which by the way deny Israel's right to exist."
He also mentioned that a "perception" exists of U.S. favoritism towards Israel and that this "perception" in some quarters of the Arab world poses challenges for him in his work. But saying this perception exists is not equivalent to saying it is due to anything that Israel has done, or that it is rational. It is also not the same thing as saying that the United States should punish or abandon Israel. It is in no way a prescription for policy.
Bottom line: Petraeus himself said that Max Boot of Commentary magazine understood his position and clearly sorted through the issues. In fact, Petraeus believes Boot's grasp of what he actually said was so accurate, he told Klein he sent a copy of Boot's original blog post to General Gabi Ashkenazi, chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces, saying the "blog by Max Boot .. picked apart this whole thing, as he typically does, pretty astutely." Here is Boot's original post on the subject and his final post on the subject.
Nevertheless, in the wake of the General's clear explanation as to his meaning, and his clear statement, on tape, that Boot got it right and that he even sent Boot's blog post to Ashkenazi so that he would not be misunderstood, some of the "critics" who tried to distort Petraeus's meaning in the first place continue to insist that their anti-Israel interpretation of his words is the correct one.
I guess they're kind of like the guy in that movie queue paraphrasing Marshall McLuhan who insisted on his interpretation, protesting, "I happen to teach a class at Columbia!" Although come to think of it, that guy put a lid on it when McLuhan himself appeared and told him he'd gotten it wrong.