The Diplomatic Coup No One Expected

Netanyahu said in advance that he didn't think the WikiLeaks cables would seriously damage Israel. But he probably had no idea they would give credence to the right.

Benjamin Netanyahu strode into Tel Aviv's Beit Sokolow, the home of the Israeli Journalists Association. The prime minister's annual meeting with the Editors Committee, which legend holds used to be devoted to exchanges of secrets in David Ben-Gurion's era, has long since become an open press conference. Last year Netanyahu skipped the event, but this Monday he showed up to display his mastery of the public agenda and tenacious adherence to his message.

emirates - Getty Images - November 3 2010
Getty Images

The night before, WikiLeaks had published the first package of leaked U.S. diplomatic cables. Even before the publication, Netanyahu had said he believed Israel would not be harmed. He was undoubtedly delighted at this second disaster that was befalling U.S. President Barack Obama within a month. Thanks to WikiLeaks, there is now no fear Washington will exert heavy pressure on Israel to freeze settlement construction or to accelerate negotiations on a withdrawal from the territories.

It's doubtful, though, that Netanyahu anticipated a publicity triumph on the scale of what happened. The Israeli right has always claimed that criticism of the occupation and the settlements is only a red herring and that the real problem in the Middle East is extremist regimes that support terrorism and pursue nuclear arms. The cables show that the rulers of Egypt, Jordan and the Gulf states are also fearful of the Iranian threat.

Some of them - Egypt's foreign minister and ranking Jordanian officials - urged the Americans to establish a Palestinian state as a way to contain Iran and curb its influence. Saudi King Abdullah is quoted as calling on Obama to press Israel on the settlements, because otherwise there will be no peace. But none of these leaders said that Ariel and Immanuel should take precedence over stopping the centrifuges at Natanz.

Iran "will threaten Israel's existence should it go nuclear," Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, the crown prince of Abu Dhabi, warned. It is surprising that the Israelis still want peace after what happened in Lebanon and Gaza, the emir of Qatar, Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, is quoted as saying. Nor does he have any complaints against Israel's leaders: "The Israeli leaders need to represent the people of Israel, who themselves do not trust Arabs. The emir said this is understandable and 'we can't blame them' because the Israelis have been 'under threat' for a long time," according to one cable. It would be interesting to know whether the emir would have spoken differently had he known that in talks with members of Congress, Netanyahu had attacked Qatar for its policy of appeasing Iran and that Mossad chief Meir Dagan had tried to persuade the Americans to punish Qatar by removing their bases from the emirate.

In Beit Sokolow, Netanyahu urged Arab leaders to say openly about Iran what they had whispered to the Americans. That's unlikely to happen. But Obama might feel that only an act of force against Iran will extricate him from his troubles and reestablish American leadership in the Middle East. His weakness, which is seen clearly in the cables, does not suggest he harbors aggressive intentions, but his approach might change.

No one will now be able to allege that Israel is acting irresponsibly . When the king of Saudi Arabia and the king of Jordan call for lopping off the head of the Iranian snake, no one will believe them when they denounce an Israeli operation. The Americans heard from Defense Minister Ehud Barak that the time for action is running out, and that message was received loud and clear. The WikiLeaks cables show clearly that the international community expects an Israeli operation. The crown prince of Abu Dhabi says he believes Israel will attack Iran, and U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates believes Israel has the offensive capability. Both of them think such an attack will do no more than delay the manufacture of an Iranian nuclear bomb by a few years.


At the height of World War I, in early 1917, the British cryptography unit ("Room 40" ) decoded a telegram from German Foreign Minister Arthur Zimmermann to his country's embassy in Mexico City, proposing the Mexicans launch a war against the United States and retake Texas. The British showed the telegram to American diplomats. The publication of the document helped induce Congress and U.S. President Woodrow Wilson to declare war on Germany; the Americans' decision to join the Allies contributed to Germany's defeat at the end of 1918.

gates - Reuters / AP - December 3 2010
Reuters / AP

A few months after the episode of the "Zimmermann Telegram," the Bolshevik Revolution took place in Russia. One of the new leaders' first decisions was to declassify the documents of the czar's Foreign Ministry. The new people's commissar for foreign affairs, Leon Trotsky, asserted that secret diplomacy serves the minority in its desire to impose its will on the majority. "Imperialism," he added, "with its dark plans of conquest and its robber alliances and deals, developed the system of secret diplomacy to the highest level."

The most famous document revealed by the Bolsheviks was the 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement, in which Britain and France planned how they would carve up the Ottoman Empire and also promised a hefty slice to Russia, which coveted Istanbul and the Black Sea straits. The exposure of secrets can influence events, if it is focused and comes at the right moment, as in the case of the Zimmermann telegram. The publication of thousands of documents in order "to denounce imperialism" changed nothing.

At the same time those diplomatic secrets were being made public, General Allenby conquered Jerusalem, and the Great Powers moved ahead with their plans to dismantle the Ottoman Empire. The only ones who got nothing were the Russians, who in the meantime had pulled out of the war and signed a separate peace with Germany.

Indeed, nearly a century later, the consequences of the Sykes-Picot Agreement are still generating conflict. Most of the protracted regional conflicts - in Iraq, Palestine and Lebanon, not to mention the fall and rise of Turkey - stem from the secret pact between Britain and France.

With WikiLeaks, there is no need to wait for official archives to be opened after being vetted to avoid embarrassment. Now the raw material can be read almost in real time and one can bask in the quotations of leaders and officials who are still in office. Everyone is a witness to the politicians' embarrassment.

Netanyahu this week said he was proud Israel maintains information security, and sensitive conversations are not conveyed in diplomatic cables but in face-to-face meetings or via secure telephones. He's right - the preparations for the attack on the Syrian reactor, for example, were discussed via other channels - but quite a bit can be gleaned from the American cables, too. Israeli journalists had almost no access to the outgoing Mossad chief, Meir Dagan, but now, thanks to WikiLeaks, everyone can read his briefings to foreign VIPs and quote what he said. Similarly, the director general of the Atomic Energy Commission, Shaul Horev, keeps his distance from the media, but he too is quoted in conversation with U.S. officials, expressing concern at the treaty being formulated to freeze the production of plutonium. According to the cables, the AEC, which supposedly is a civilian body, submits intelligence evaluations to Netanyahu about the Iranian project.

The cables show senior civil servants, such as Dagan and Amos Gilad of the Defense Ministry, serving for years and presenting policy as they understand and interpret it, irrespective of who is prime minister or which party is in power. No difference in their opinions is discernible under any of the last three prime ministers, Ariel Sharon, Olmert and Netanyahu.

obama - AP - December 3 2010

The current premier is quoted telling Congress members the same things he says in public: Iran is dangerous, the Palestinians are being difficult, I want an agreement, I had a good talk with Obama. When he was in the opposition, Netanyahu made the mistake of being frank in a conversation with Representative Gary Ackerman, a Democrat from New York, a veteran expert on the Middle East and one of Israel's most important friends in Washington. Netanyahu assailed the behavior of the Olmert government in the Second Lebanon War, saying Israel "dropped troops into [Hezbollah's] gunsights," and offering his assessment that Olmert would not survive in power.

But if Netanyahu spoke more freely back then, he left the journalists he met this week yawning. Not least because two hours after the event, the Prime Minister's Bureau announced the appointment of Tamir Pardo as the new head of the Mossad.