Tel Aviv — Before WikiLeaks’ release of several hundred U.S. diplomatic cables, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu downplayed expectations of embarrassment for Israel by predicting that the surprising revelations would come elsewhere in the Middle East.
“There’s a gap between what people say in private and in public. In the state of Israel the gaps aren’t that big, and in other countries in the region, the gaps are very, very big.”
Within hours, Netanyahu was proved correct.
Amid the international uproar over newly released WikiLeaks documents, Israeli officials capitalized on an unexpected public relations coup: confirmation that the specter of a nuclear Iran has Arab states just as frightened — and nearly as hawkish — as Israel.
“I don’t see any damage. Quite the opposite,” said Israeli Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz in an interview with Israel Radio. “Maybe there’s an indirect benefit that the truth is coming out, that the entire Middle East, including Arab states, are very fearful from the Iranian nuclear threat, and are calling on the West to be much more aggressive toward Iran.”
But beyond the momentary PR dividend, many analysts warned of long-term collateral damage for Israel because of the bruised standing of the U.S.
Over the weekend, there was a sense of foreboding in the Israeli press that the WikiLeaks’ cables would contain embarrassing remarks about Israeli leaders as well as secret Israeli intelligence, potentially complicating already strained relations with the U.S. over the peace process with the Palestinians.
But the speculation was replaced with a sense of relief when the first batch of cables were released.
Though there were some minor scoops — for instance, Egypt President Hosni Mubarak’s assessment of Netanyahu as charming but untrustworthy — officials and analysts agreed that the conversations divulged by WikiLeaks did not radically diverge from what Israelis already knew through their own media about their foreign relations. “Not sensational,” declared the headline of an editorial in the liberal Haaretz newspaper.
And on Monday, Netanyahu declared that “Israel wasn’t damaged” by the publication.
To be sure, reports of Arab fears of Iran had also been reported on and alluded to by government ministers. But the documentation of conversations with top Arab ministers who urged the U.S. to attack Iran gave the previously anonymous reports newfound weight on an international stage.
“It’s great news for Israel,” said Meir Javedanfar, an Iran expert based in Tel Aviv. “It shows that other countries in the region share Israel’s concern, and it’s not only in Jerusalem where there are hawks who want to attack Iran. There are also people in Riyadh.”
In the cables, Arab ministers from the Gulf warn the U.S. that the biggest threat to the region is the Iranian regime’s ambitions to recreate the Persian empire from antiquity. Israeli officials pointed to a U.S. diplomatic report in which Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad is compared to Hitler.
“If the WikiLeaks site did not exist, Israel would have to invent it,” wrote Sever Plocker, an columnist for the daily Yediot Ahronot newspaper. “The massive leak of American diplomatic telegrams indicates a single picture, sharp and clear: The entire world, not just Israel, is panicked over the Iranian nuclear program.”
However, Yoav Limor, the military affairs commentator for Channel 1, said the remarks of Arab leaders were best left behind closed doors. The WikiLeaks publication, he feared, will whip up public sentiment against the pro-Western Arab governments.
Other analysts said the dissonance between the public and confidential remarks of Arab countries is disturbing. Shlomo Avineri, a Hebrew University political science professor and former foreign ministry director general, said that while countries like Saudi Arabia argue in public that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the biggest destabilizing factor for the region, in private, they consider Iran as a bigger strategic threat.
“Why is it worrying? Because they are our partners for peace,” he said.
Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak speculated that that the long-term effect of the WikiLeaks’ publication of the diplomatic cables would be a chill in the normal off-the-record dialogue between diplomats. Participants in those discussions will be more circumspect in the future, Barak said.
Israeli parliament members, meanwhile, demanded a discussion of whether Israeli bureaucrats’ communiqués are sufficiently secured. A spokesman for WikiLeaks told Israel Channel 2 news that there are about 9,000 cables relating to Israel that are going to made public. To date, only a few dozen have been released.
Last year, Anat Kam, a former soldier in the central command, was arrested for allegedly stealing 2,000 military documents.
Alon Liel, a former Israeli diplomat, said the WikiLeaks publication would usher in a “new era” in diplomacy in which it would become harder for the U.S. to gather information around the world.
The blow to the U.S. prestige, he and others concluded, would ultimately weaken Israel’s geopolitical position.
“It’s an earthquake that will affect American diplomacy, the readiness of sources to talk with American diplomats, it will affect the ability of America to gather information,” Liel said. “The fact that the U.S. doesn’t look good especially in the Middle East pushes us out of the region, and lowers the chances for Israel to become an integral part of the region.”
Javedanfar disagreed, arguing that the failure was limited to U.S. intelligence agencies and doesn’t reflect, as some have argued, the declining sway of the U.S.
“If anything it shows how the U.S. is being taken seriously as leading the global effort to stop Iran. Everybody is talking to the US, and that Washington is the go-to place, and that Obama has a lot of credibility.”
But other analysts countered that the WikiLeaks episode does indeed highlight a more general erosion of American power.
“This reinforces the broader view that the U.S. has lost the ability to protect its own interest and that of its allies,” he said. “Americans, who have been historically seen as being quick to adapt, are slow learners in a high-tech age and it’s dragging everyone down with them.”