Thursday, 2 December 2010

WikiLeaks – the Israel-Palestine dimension

WikiLeaks, the website dedicated to publishing covertly acquired information, shook the diplomatic world on 28 November by starting to publish excerpts from more than 250,000 confidential United States documents it claims to have in its possession. In partnership with five Western newspapers, including the New York Times and the Guardian of London, it began putting out “redacted” versions of these documents – that is to say, the newspapers have cooperated with WikiLeaks in an attempt to reduce the potential danger to individuals from some of the more sensitive material, but not in any way to mitigate the embarrassment to the United States or its allies. It was quickly apparent that the disclosures have indeed angered Washington by exposing the inner workings of US diplomacy, including candid assessments of world leaders.

The diplomatic cables and other documents are being released in a drip-feed fashion, little by little, day by day – a tactic clearly designed to optimise their value to the newspapers who are cooperating with WikiLeaks in the operation. So far only a comparatively few have been concerned with the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, but on 1 December the founder of WikiLeaks, Julian Assange, rather surprisingly defended his disclosure of the classified US documents by singling out Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu as an example of a world leader who believes the publications will aid global diplomacy.

"We can see the Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu coming out with a very interesting statement," Assange told Time Magazine, “that leaders should speak in public like they do in private whenever they can. He believes that the result of this publication, which makes the sentiments of many privately held beliefs public, will lead to some kind of increase in the peace process in the Middle East and particularly in relation to Iran."

Conspiracy theorists abound the world over, and one shouldn’t be surprised at anything that emanates from people who still believe that the notorious forgery, “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion”, reveals a world-wide Jewish plot to seize control of the world. Nevertheless, it is pretty astounding to learn that a senior Islamist official can announce with a straight face that the blame for the release of the WikiLeaks documents must be laid at the door of Israel, the universal scapegoat. Addressing reporters on 1 December, Huseyin Celik, deputy leader of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's AKP party, hinted that Israel engineered the leak of the quarter of a million US diplomatic cables as a plot to pressure the Turkish government.

“One has to look at which countries are pleased with these," Celik was quoted as saying. "Israel is very pleased. Israel has been making statements for days, even before the release of these documents. Documents were released and they immediately said, ‘Israel will not suffer from this.’ How did they know that?”

The earliest revelation in the batch of cables so far released concerns the attitude of the Irish government to Israel following the second Lebanon conflict. A diplomatic cable sent from the US embassy in Ireland reveals that "the Irish Government has informally begun to place constraints on US military transits" at Shannon Airport. It seems that the Irish government, attempting to prevent weapons from reaching Israel through Shannon Airport, started requiring that any military equipment passing through the country required "prior notification" and "exemption waivers."

The Irish Transport Department notice followed an oral, but definitive, decision by Eire’s Department of Foreign Affairs during the Lebanon conflict forbidding US military transits carrying munitions to Israel. "A policy," the document reads, “that the DFA did not convey to the US embassy before informing the media."

The cable explains that this policy is due to the fact that "segments of the Irish public see the airport as a symbol of Irish complicity in perceived US wrongdoing in the Middle East."

If we move forward to February 2009, another leaked US cable shows that Israeli prime minister Netanyahu supported the notion of land swaps with the Palestinians. An explanatory statement issued on 1 December 2010 by his Bureau said that Netanyahu meant only that he was willing to accept territorial compromises within the framework of a future peace deal. "That was Netanyahu's open policy,” said the statement, “that is his policy today and in the aforementioned meeting in February 2009, he did not voice any other position. Any other interpretation is incorrect and definitely does not represent the prime minister's position."

In the 26 February 2009 cable, written two weeks after the Israeli leader was elected, Netanyahu expressed support for the concept of land swaps and said that he did not want to govern the West Bank and Gaza, but rather to stop attacks being launched from there.

Israel and Pakistan do not share official diplomatic ties, although it is not unusual for the two countries to share intelligence on sensitive issues such as global terrorism. If we move forward to October 2009, we learn the perhaps surprising fact from one of the leaked cables that Pakistan shared intelligence information with Israel regarding possible terrorist attacks against Jewish and Israeli sites in India. According to the document dated 7 October 2009, Ahmad Shuja Pasha, head of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence agency, told former US Ambassador Anne Patterson that he had conveyed to Israel intelligence on potential terror attacks in India. He told her that he had travelled to Oman and Iran to investigate information he received from the US about possible pending attacks in India.

"Pasha asked Ambassador to convey to Washington,” read the cable, “that he had followed up on threat information that an attack would be launched against India between September-November. He had been in direct touch with the Israelis on possible threats against Israeli targets in India."

Despite this cooperation on the intelligence front, Israeli officials, such as Mossad chief Meir Dagan, were quoted in other documents published by WikiLeaks expressing grave concern about the stability of the Pakistani government and the security surrounding Islamabad’s nuclear arsenal.

The WikiLeaks exposé of the inner workings of American diplomacy continued with revelations that in November 2009, two weeks before Israel decided on a settlement construction freeze, Berlin was urging the US to impose such a freeze on Israel. The telegram shows that German National Security Adviser Christoph Heusgen met with US Assistant Secretary of State Philip Gordon and with US Ambassador to Germany Philip Murphy on 10 November 2009 to suggest that the United States threaten prime minister Netanyahu with withdrawing its support for blocking a vote on the Goldstone Report [on Israel's attack on Hamas in Gaza] at the United Nations Security Council, if he did not agree to a building moratorium.

Heusgen is quoted in the telegram as saying that Germany believes that Netanyahu needed "to do more" to bring the Palestinians to the negotiating table. "He suggested pressuring Netanyahu by linking favorable United Nations Security Council (UNSC) treatment of the Goldstone Report to Israel committing to a complete stop in settlement activity."

The American officials were surprised by the proposal and said that such linkage would be counterproductive "but agreed that it was worth pointing out to the Israelis that their policy on settlements was making it difficult for their friends to hold the line in the UNSC." At the time, Arab and Muslim countries, led by Turkey and Libya, were stepping up pressure to hold discussions on the Goldstone Report at the Security Council. The US administration managed to block the initiative and avoided an anti-Israeli vote.

A final surprise revelation – for the moment – is that in the latest round of WikiLeaks documents the Emir of Qatar, Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, has said that Israel cannot be blamed for mistrusting Arabs, and that the Jewish state deserves credit for seeking peace in light of the threat posed by Hamas and Hezbollah. The Qatari leader was reported to have made the remarks during a meeting with US Senator John Kerry on 23 February 2010.

"When you consider that many in the region perceive that Hezbollah drove Israel out of Lebanon and Hamas kicked them out of the small piece of land called Gaza, it is actually surprising that the Israelis still want peace. The region, however, is still far away from peace," said the Emir.
Al-Thani told Kerry that the time was right for an Israeli-Arab peace deal, and in his opinion the best way to achieve this was to reopen negotiations with Syria using Turkey as a mediator. "The Syrian Government can help Arab extremists make tough choices, but only if the US, whose involvement is essential, demonstrates to Syria early on a willingness to address the return of the Golan Heights and supports Turkey's mediation efforts between Israel and Syria." the classified cable said.

Qatar's ties with Israel were broken off in early 2009 after Operation Cast Lead, but the document revealed that efforts were being made to mend relations, and Qatar had invited Israel’s Foreign Ministry Middle East Head, Yaakov Hadas, to Doha to discuss renewing ties.

To the general public the leaked diplomatic papers so far published cast an unusual and revealing light on how the diplomatic world really operates, and the sometimes yawning gap between what governments and diplomats say in public, and what they really believe. Embarrassing to the US and to individuals they undoubtedly are, but since all governments and all diplomats play the same game, they are unlikely to affect the course of events to any significant degree.

Of course, there may yet be a quite unexpected revelation lurking among the tens of thousands of papers not so far made public. We must wait and see.

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