The flutter of a butterfly’s wings that led to the biggest storm in the history of modern diplomacy began in the deserts of Iraq. Private 1st Class Bradley Manning, a computer expert who was serving at a secret U.S. Army base about 50 kilometers from Baghdad, was responsible for the first, imperceptible movement. Out of boredom or perhaps ideological motives (the desire to expose the injustices of the American occupation), he is alleged to have downloaded a quarter-of-a-million secret State Department documents onto two discs that also contained Lady Gaga songs and given them to Julian Assange, founder of the WikiLeaks site.
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Assange gave this mountain of documents to a few newspapers in various countries and the imperceptible breeze became a storm that is still shaking capitals and leaders. Indeed, many people attribute the fall of Tunisian dictator Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali to the publication of the American cables dealing with his and his wife’s terrible corruption.
With the first publication of part of the cache of documents last November, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hastened to draw conclusions. The first, which was indeed supported by the documents, was that most Middle East leaders had adopted Israel’s claim that Iran is the biggest threat to stability in the region. The documents revealed that in their conversations with American ambassadors, leaders of several Arab countries supported the idea of a military attack on Iran to prevent it from developing nuclear weapons.
“In our region,” said Netanyahu proudly, “they are prisoners of a narrative of 60 years of propaganda, in which Israel is depicted as the greatest danger to the region. For the first time in history, there is agreement that Iran is the threat.”
Netanyahu’s second conclusion from the biggest information leak in history seems to have less of a basis. “Israel has not been harmed at all by the publication in WikiLeaks,” said the prime minister a few days after the publication. “Every Israeli leader over the years has known that cables are liable to leak and therefore we adapted ourselves to the reality of leaks. This influences whom I bring into meetings and what I say in meetings.”
Until now a great deal of WikiLeaks material about the Middle East has indeed been published, but little of it has dealt directly with Israel. In the months that have passed since the original publication, rumors have spread to the effect that Assange had worked hand in hand with Israel to prevent exposure of embarrassing material about it. Proponents of such a conspiracy theory held that Assange is in fact a Mossad agent, or that he met (in Geneva, in November 2010) with Mossad people and plotted the intrigue with them.
These are baseless rumors. The reason for the small amount of information about Israel is known to anyone familiar with the media world. The media outlets with which Assange was in contact preferred to focus on documents connected to their own countries: The Guardian focused on Britain, Der Spiegel on Germany, Le Monde on France and, of course, The New York Times on America.
A few weeks ago about 250,000 of the documents WikiLeaks holds, amounting to nearly 30 million words, came into the hands of Haaretz. Yossi Melman, who has been covering intelligence affairs for decades, along with other members of the editorial staff, embarked on a search for what might be called “the Israel file.” This file includes nearly 10,000 documents. Many were sent from the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv, but there is also quite a bit of material originating at the State Department in Washington and at other American embassies.
The documents are sorted into three categories of secrecy: “unclassified,” covering mainly press summaries, “confidential” and “secret.” Documents classified “top secret” were not fed into the State Department system and were restricted to a very limited distribution. In retrospect, the American administration has no regrets about such a strict procedure.
The documents of the WikiLeaks Israel file do not damage Israel’s national security per se. The names of agents are not revealed in them, they do not detail plans for military actions and they contain no information liable to endanger human lives. From reading them, it emerges clearly that even in secret meetings Israel’s representatives including Military Intelligence officers, the Shin Bet security service and the Mossad took care not to share deep secrets with their American interlocutors.
The documents deal with situation assessments and other information from several years back. The whole defense and intelligence establishment must always act as if prepared for the worst-case scenario. If the documents are now in the hands of a number of media outlets, and hundreds of reporters and editors have access to them , it is necessary to proceed as though they have also come into the hands of antagonists and enemies.
Nevertheless, in the work of editing we have censored ourselves. We have taken care not to expose individuals who are liable to be endangered if their names are mentioned. More than the revelation of security secrets of one sort or another, what interested us was to examine whether officeholders in Israel and abroad speak differently in private than they do publicly.
From the selection of documents we have chosen to publish today, it emerges that vis-a-vis an ambassador or his envoys, an official’s tone may change. The ruler of an Arab country that does not have official relations with Israel would not dare publicly acknowledge his country has “security relations” with it; Chief of Staff Yoav Galant would never repeat publicly, or even in a closed discussion in the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, things that he told the Americans about the Hamas regime in the Gaza Strip.
Sometimes there is in fact a huge gap between what leaders and officials say to the people of their country, and what they say in secret to representatives of the United States. Most noteworthy of all is the head of the Yesha Council of settlements, Danny Dayan, who will have to explain to his public why there is such a large gap between the positions he takes in public and what he has said to the Americans. Histadrut labor federation chairman Ofer Eini is also seen as someone who brags confidently to the American ambassador.
The way representatives of Peace Now speak with the Americans merits examination, too, and even more so the reports of the close relationship between them and the Israeli Defense Ministry. According to the documents, at least, the tremendous official mechanism used by Israel in controlling the territories for more than 40 years now needs the assistance of an extra-governmental organization in order to know what is happening in the outposts in the West Bank. This is strange and worrisome.
And there is Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, with the extraordinary assessments he gives to the American ambassador. And French President Nicholas Sarkozy, Netanyahu’s best friend in Europe, who is revealed as someone not prepared to closet himself alone with the Israeli prime minister, even for a short time.
What is published here today and what will be published in the coming days is but a drop in the ocean of secret information from the State Department’s files. However, as soon as these things came into our hands, we saw fit to bring this drop before the public in Israel. This is a newspaper’s basic commitment to its public of readers.