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ISRAEL: WikiLeaks and Israel -- quiet relief, louder vindication, for now

November 29, 2010 |  7:11 am

The morning after the first disclosures of WikiLeaks' trove of diplomatic cables, buzz in Israel was somewhere between relief and vindication, and officials were being thankful by keeping quiet. Relations between Israel and the U.S. are based on a tight weave of shared interests, not local incidents, said deputy foreign minister Danny Ayalon.

Gradually, more official voices were heard. The revelations show what some of us knew, said President Shimon Peres -- that the Arab countries know they have an enemy, "and it's not Israel."

A headline in Haaretz was more direct: "Everybody hates Iran."

If WikiLeaks didn't exist, Israel would have had to invent it, wrote Sever Plocker, noting the big leak backed Israel's foreign and defense policy and revealed "the shame" that many agree with Israel but "won't admit it openly."

"Sorry we were right," wrote columnist Dan Margalit.

Israel wasn't embarrassed "one bit" by the fiasco, writes Aluf Benn.  

OK, so the U.S. Embassy in Cairo said that Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak said he found Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu "elegant and charming" but felt Netanyahu never kept his promises. And defense official Amos Gilad thinks Mubarak lives in the past more than the present. Worse things have been said in public.

It's a tempest in a teapot for Israel, for now, according to finance minister Yuval Steinitz.

In a radio interview Monday, former national security adviser Giora Eiland, said Israel can be satisfied that so far no security secrets, operational plans or intelligence capabilities were revealed. Many agree the main victim is diplomacy, which may not have been exposed entirely naked but is stripped down to its flowered boxer shorts, as one radio reporter put it Monday morning.

Diplomatic cables, even classified, aren't where "the real action" happens, says analyst Amir Oren.  Even secure phone lines in embassies aren't trusted for important stuff, as a former Israeli diplomat explains here. Netanyahu, who said Israel wasn't damaged by the leaks, confirmed that important things were discussed in small forums, in person or by encrypted phone calls.

Still, the documents relating to Israel contained some very interesting stuff. Here's a partial list:

Israel tried to coordinate its military offensive on Gaza-ruled Hamas with Egypt and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas' Fatah government, according to Haaretz. In a confidential telegram from Tel Aviv, then-Deputy U.S. Ambassador Luis Moreno wrote that Defense Minister Ehud Barak told a visiting congressional delegation that Israel asked both if they would be willing to take control of Gaza once ("once" -- not "if" -- say reports) Israel defeated Hamas. Both said no. (At the time, Hamas had accused Egypt of deliberately misleading them about Israel's military intentions.)

Israel's position that the Iranian regime is dangerous is no secret. What it thinks should be done about it, besides the much speculated military strike, comes to light in an August 2007 cable from Tel Aviv classified by then-Ambassador Richard Jones and published by the Guardian. The cable reports on a meeting between Mossad chief Meir Dagan and Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns.

Dagan had listed the "five pillars" of Israel's policy on Iran: political approach, covert measures, counter-proliferation, sanctions and forcing a regime change. These, he said, should be pushed simultaneously and more attention should given to exploiting weak spots and ethnic tensions that could feed a regime change. Incidentally, the cable stated it was agreed the 'covert measures approach' would not be discussed in the larger group setting.

(Haifa university Iran expert Soli Shahvar said Monday he wouldn't make the connection between the post-election protest and any intelligence agency but that Iranian authorities would use this information to intensify cracking down on dissent.)

In November 2009, Netanyahu had advised the U.S. that Iran was only months away from nuclear capability, but this was dismissed as a ploy to nudge Washington into military action, reveals one cable. A cable from June that year reports Barak warned that the window for a strike on Iran's nuclear facilities was closing and that after 2010 a military solution would result in "unacceptable collateral damage."

In his annual meeting with the press board Monday, Netanyahu wouldn't comment on Barak's point but said the Iranian nuclear program was making constant progress and that this was "no estimate."

Other documents relate to arms and defense systems. A cable from the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv to the secretary of State -- classified until 2019 -- reports on the November 2009 meeting of the Joint Political Military Group in which Israel's military qualitative edge was discussed and Israeli defense officials expressed continued concerns over the planned sale of F-15s to Saudi Arabia. Among other things, the cable said the sides discussed "the upcoming delivery" of GBU-28 bunker-busting bombs to Israel, noting that "the transfer should be handled quietly to avoid any allegations that the United States Government is helping Israel prepare for a strike against Iran."

For a long time, Israel was most concerned about Russia's promise to supply Iran with S300 missiles. A December 2009 cable reported on a meeting between Ellen Tauscher, undersecretary of State for arms control and international security, and Amos Gilad, senior Israeli defense ministry official. Tauscher wrote that Gilad said the Russians would be willing to cancel the deal in return for $1 billion worth of advanced Israeli drone technologies. Israel would not, said the cable. (The deal was recently called off .)

In July 2007, Mossad chief Dagan met with Frances Fragos Townsend, assistant to the president for homeland security and counter-terrorism, to discuss general regional threats. The classified cable from Tel Aviv quotes Dagan saying Israel has "no intention" of attacking Syria. Two months later, a Syrian facility said to be a nuclear reactor in early construction stages was bombed in an air strike, reportedly by Israel. 

In the same meeting, Dagan had expressed his "personal feelings" that after a decade of trying to reach a final status agreement with the Palestinians, "nothing would be achieved." The only thing keeping Hamas from taking over the West Bank too were Israeli military operations there, he said, and he questioned what the estimated $6 billion Americans had invested in the Palestinian Authority since 1994 had accomplished besides "adding a few more people to the Fortune 500." (By the way, Dagan's replacement was announced Monday.)

Yet more Iran. A 2008 classified cable sent from Dubai reported that Iran had abused the Iranian Red Crescent to mobilize both personnel and weapons, including to Lebanon during the 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah.

Israel was troubled when its strategic relationship with Turkey went south and continues to wonder where Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan is taking this and why. "He is a fundamentalist, he hates us religiously, and his hatred is spreading," Gaby Levy, Israeli ambassador to Turkey, told his U.S. counterpart, Ambassador James Jeffrey, who related this in an October 2009 cable. Jeffrey, according to the dispatch, tended to agree, saying talks with their own contacts "tend to confirm Levy's thesis that Erdogan simply hates Israel."

More to come, for sure.

-- Batsheva Sobelman in Jerusalem

 

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