WikiLeaks cables: U.S. embassy believed Netanyahu would advance peace in 2009
Among the thousands of U.S. embassy cables published by Wikileaks on Thursday, those from the Tel Aviv embassy shed light on the administration’s views on senior Israeli politicians.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu likes to centralize control and keeps his own counsel, but he may advance the peace process. Interior Minister Eli Yishai is a loud opponent of the peace process and Vice Prime Minister Moshe Ya'alon is a controversial figure who Netanyahu regrets ever bringing into Likud. These are some of the descriptions by U.S. diplomats at the Tel Aviv embassy of Israeli leaders in reports sent to Washington in 2009.
Around 70,000 more cables from U.S. embassies around the world were published Thursday on the WikiLeaks website. Even though most are unclassified, they include a wealth of information about the way American diplomats viewed senior members of the Netanyahu government during the first months of his return to power.
Immediately after their first meeting at the White House in May 2009, there was tension between Netanyahu and U.S. President Barack Obama, especially following Netanyahu's refusal to freeze settlement construction and agree to the principle of two states for two peoples.
Still, the initial description of Netanyahu sent to Washington on April 1, the day before the swearing-in of his government at the Knesset, is presented positively, along with optimistic forecasts of Netanyahu's intentions to advance the peace process.
In a cable termed "sensitive" but not "classified," Netanyahu is described as occupying the center-right of the Israeli political scene. But he prefers pragmatism over ideology in most matters.
"On the peace process he is keeping all options open regarding a two-state solution, and may be willing to advance the process significantly as long as he is not forced to publicly acknowledge the extent of such progress," the cable said.
The American diplomats expected Netanyahu "to rely heavily on his improved skills at political wheeling-dealing to keep the right flank on board while quietly (but perhaps slowly ) cooperating on the peace process agenda, which he understands is critical to Israel's relations with the U.S." The authors quoted from Netanyahu's final speech in the Knesset while Ehud Olmert was still prime minister, in which he declared his willingness to make "generous concessions" for peace with the Palestinians.
It remains unclear what the source of these optimistic evaluations was, especially in view of comments by Netanyahu during a meeting with Ambassador James Cunningham four months earlier. There, Netanyahu rejected the idea of negotiating a permanent settlement and only expressed his support for "economic peace."
"I can deliver two thirds of the Israeli right-wing on anything we agree with the Palestinians, whether on process or interim agreements," Netanyahu told the ambassador according to the cable of November 24, 2008. "He said he favors the two-state model, but it is not possible now. 'If President Obama will work with me, we can make real progress.'"
On April 1, 2009, another cable went out, analyzing Netanyahu's coalition. "Netanyahu takes office as head of the largest government in the history of Israel, and apparently one of the largest in the world," the American diplomats wrote.
"Various newly-created posts is a product of political wheeling and dealing .... The government, though it appears bloated, may provide Netanyahu with his best hope for long-term stability."
The U.S. diplomats were highly skeptical of some of Netanyahu's senior appointments. One of them was Yishai, described as negative and problematic after he announced in a radio interview that he intended to advance settlement expansion.
"Yishai's ability to move beyond rhetoric is limited," diplomats wrote in a cable dated June 9, 2009. "Nonetheless, Yishai has lost no time in trying to position himself as the leader of the rejectionist bloc within Netanyahu's coalition government, opposing not only Government of Israel commitments to honor the Roadmap settlements freeze, but also rejecting any reopening of final status talks with the Palestinians. This position puts him at odds with the Shas movement's spiritual leader, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, who has long supported trading land for long-term security."
The U.S. diplomats also noted that Ya'alon had described the Peace Now movement as a "virus."
"Ya'alon is a controversial figure who was forced out of the command of the IDF by Sharon over his opposition to the Gaza disengagement," reads a cable dated August 21, 2009.
"In our contacts with Ya'alon, he has been careful not to appear anti-U.S. .... Now that Ya'alon appears to be maneuvering to position himself as a leader of Likud's right wing opposition to concessions, Netanyahu probably regrets his decision [to bring him into Likud]."