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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 ...

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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 Indeed, he found it somewhat out of date."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."

Josh Rogin covers national security and foreign policy and writes the daily Web column The Cable. His column appears bi-weekly in the print edition of The Washington Post. He can be reached for comments or tips at josh.rogin@foreignpolicy.com.

Previously, Josh covered defense and foreign policy as a staff writer for Congressional Quarterly, writing extensively on Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantánamo Bay, U.S.-Asia relations, defense budgeting and appropriations, and the defense lobbying and contracting industries. Prior to that, he covered military modernization, cyber warfare, space, and missile defense for Federal Computer Week Magazine. He has also served as Pentagon Staff Reporter for the Asahi Shimbun, Japan's leading daily newspaper, in its Washington, D.C., bureau, where he reported on U.S.-Japan relations, Chinese military modernization, the North Korean nuclear crisis, and more.

A graduate of George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs, Josh lived in Yokohama, Japan, and studied at Tokyo's Sophia University. He speaks conversational Japanese and has reported from the region. He has also worked at the House International Relations Committee, the Embassy of Japan, and the Brookings Institution.

Josh's reporting has been featured on CNN, MSNBC, C-Span, CBS, ABC, NPR, WTOP, and several other outlets. He was a 2008-2009 National Press Foundation's Paul Miller Washington Reporting Fellow, 2009 military reporting fellow with the Knight Center for Specialized Journalism and the 2011 recipient of the InterAction Award for Excellence in International Reporting. He hails from Philadelphia and lives in Washington, D.C. Twitter: @joshrogin