Corroboration, Not Revelation

In January 1969, the labor attaché at the U.S. embassy in Israel sent a report classified "confidential" to the State Department. In it, she passed on the inside information on Israel's ruling Labor Party that she'd gained by having an over-the-hill politician named Golda Meir over for dinner. Meir had said that then-Prime Minister Levi Eshkol would run for re-election that fall. "The tone of her remarks indicated that any other possibility was too ridiculous to consider," attaché Margaret Plunkett commented. Eshkol's health was "perfectly okay," according to Meir. As for Meir herself, she'd only agreed under pressure from the party to run again for Knesset. The report would remain classified for at least 12 years.

Eshkol was actually terribly ill at the time. The ruling party's inner circle had already chosen Meir as his successor. He died a month later. In those days, if you wanted to leak diplomatic documents, you had to copy them one at a time. Had a would-be whistle-blower at State stood over the photocopy machine after-hours, he would probably not have thought this one worth the extra seconds of his time. I have to wonder why anyone would consider it worth making a secret in the first place. To protect a source? If Meir had known that her comments could become public, perhaps she would have been more careful about fibbing. I doubt it, though. The only embarrassment for U.S. diplomacy in the memorandum is that the attaché was so eagerly misled.

Today, as the most recent WikiLeaks dump shows, it's easier to copy a quarter-million documents than to sift through them for the interesting ones. (That's also why Israeli whistle-blower Anat Kam allegedly copied 2,000 military documents, rather than a few.) The State Department has just followed young job applicants into the era of Facebook and cell-phone cameras: Anything you've ever said or done might be available online.

Since Israel still plays an outsized role in U.S. diplomacy, one might expect Israeli officials to be very nervous. Prime Minister Netanyahu, however, says that the leak has only helped Israel. That's overstating the case. But it's true that the small number of cables from the Tel Aviv embassy published so far do not contain shocking news. Like many worthwhile scientific experiments, they confirm reasonable hypotheses. There, in black and white, is what diligent reporters had previously guessed. Israel's warnings on Iran, Netanyahu's view of peace, and the way he has tangled the two things together provide good examples.

Start with Iran: You might have thought Israel has risked eroding its credibility by warning for years that Iran is only months away from the point where its nuclear-arms program becomes unstoppable. A March 2005 cable indicates that you were right. At that time, Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz "cautioned that Iran is 'less than one year away,' while the head of research in military intelligence estimated that Iran would reach this point by early 2007." Such estimates bothered even some Israeli officials, the cable notes: "The head of the [Foreign Ministry's] strategic affairs division recalled that [Israeli government] assessments from 1993 predicted that Iran would possess an atomic bomb by 1998 at the latest." The cable concludes, "Israeli intelligence briefings will understandably focus on worst-case scenarios and may not match current [American] assessments."

The same document, by the way, confirms the common assessment that Israel doesn't have a real military option for stopping the Iranian program -- which might explain why the generals were so eager to convince the United States of the danger.

None of this means that the danger of Iranian nukes is a fiction. But it shows there's a price to making a prediction too urgent.

Before getting to Netanyahu's way of exploiting the danger from Iran, a word from the cables about his view of the Palestinian issue. In April 2009, just after Netanyahu became prime minister, he met with a visiting U.S. congressional delegation. He said he understood that the Palestinians should govern themselves and explained, "The only limits on Palestinian sovereignty would be elements that affect Israel's security. A Palestinian state must be demilitarized, without control over its air space and electro-magnetic field, and without the power to enter into treaties or control its borders."

There's not much space between Netanyahu's idea of a Palestinian state and the proposal made by Moshe Dayan in 1967, immediately after Israel conquered the West Bank. Dayan suggested Palestinian "self rule" with Israeli control over defense and foreign affairs. Back then, another minister dismissed this as turning "the West Bank into a colony."

In a meeting with another congressional delegation several weeks earlier, Netanyahu said that if Israel were to withdraw from the West Bank, Hamas would take over and create an Iranian satellite. He also argued that Iran reaching nuclear-arms capability would cause a regional realignment that would "topple the peace process." In other words, the Iranian threat makes an Israeli pullout too dangerous to discuss at present, and if Iran gets the bomb, it will be impossible to talk about peace. The kindest reading of this logic is that if the United States wants any progress toward Israeli-Palestinian peace, it must first eliminate the Iranian nuclear-arms project. In the meantime, the linkage between the two issues frees Netanyahu from negotiating seriously. Exploiting the Iran issue in this way only erodes the credibility of the warnings further.

None of this shocking. It's helpful to see it on paper. I have to wonder if the "confidential" and "secret" labels on top of the cables are mostly a matter of habit.

What's on the WikiLeaks site is actually very limited -- less than a thousand out of a quarter-million leaked cables. So far, none are from the U.S. Consulate in Jerusalem, the de facto embassy to the Palestinians. Even when everything is online, we won't necessarily know what the people in Washington thought about reports from the field. Personally, I'd particularly like to know how what the reaction was at the State Department and White House to Netanyahu's June 2009 promise to remove the so-called unauthorized outpost settlements (he still hasn't) or to his adviser's statement that the previous government had already eliminated all financial incentives for settlers (it didn't). I'd like to believe the response was skepticism. A leaked document showing that claims were eagerly believed in Washington -- that would be embarrassing.

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