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WikiLeaks reveals secrets — and cluelessness

WASHINGTON – A careful reading of the WikiLeaks trove of State Department cables — which is laying bare some 250,000 secret dispatches detailing private conversations, assessments, and dealmaking of U.S. diplomats — reveals a notable if perhaps surprising pattern: how often they get things wrong.

Again and again the cables show diplomats, lawmakers, and heads of state predicting outcomes that never come to pass.

A year ago, top Israeli defense officials, in a meeting with their U.S. counterparts, set 2010 as the absolute deadline to squeeze Iran on its nuclear program. Now Israeli officials say the date is 2012.

In a 2005 assessment, the same Israeli cadre told U.S. interlocutors that the point of no return would be Iran’s ability to enrich uranium without assistance. Iran has had that capacity for years.

In January 2008, Egypt’s intelligence chief said Hamas was isolated and would not stand in the way of a peace agreement. Hamas’ continuing control of Gaza, even following the war that broke out 11 months after the Egyptian assessment, still undercuts Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

In 2007, U.S. diplomats called Tzipi Livni an up-and-comer. Though now the leader of the Israeli opposition as head of the Kadima Party, Livni twice failed in bids to become Israel’s prime minister.

The same State Department cable said the Israeli military and government don’t get along — “never the twain shall meet!” But they do get along, mostly, and meet often; the lack of cooperation in 2007 was the result of the short-lived term of Amir Peretz as Israeli defense minister.

The disparities between predictions and reality reflect the on-the-fly nature of the discussions detailed in the newly revealed cables.

Ed Abington, a former U.S. consul in Jerusalem who has consulted for the Palestinian Authority, said the authors of such cables work under pressure to come up with “added value” in analysis and fill in the vacuum with chatter that might not have any basis in reality.

“You’re looking for what you can add that makes it relevant to policymakers in Washington and elsewhere — analysis, insight,” Abington told JTA. “A lot of the reporting, in hindsight, is irrelevant.”

David Makovsky, a senior analyst with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said facts on the ground also change rapidly — a factor that helps explain how dire Israeli predictions about Iran’s imminent weapons program have dissipated, at least for now.

Part of that may be attributable to efforts by the West to sabotage Iran’s nuclear program. Makovsky cited the recent success of the Stuxnet computer worm, which apparently disrupted Iranian centrifuges necessary to enrich uranium to bomb-making capacity.

Much of the material in the leaked cables offers frank U.S. assessments of everything from the temperament of foreign leaders to the shipment of arms between foes of the United States.

In late 2009, U.S. officials told their Russian counterparts that they believed North Korea had shipped missiles to Iran capable of hitting capitals in western Europe. The Russians were skeptical, but agreed that there was evidence of increased cooperation between the two rogue nations and it posed new dangers.

The cables also track increasing concern among the United States, Israel, and Western nations that Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is leading Turkey along a path to Islamism — and beyond the point of no return of accommodation with the West.

In Cairo, U.S. diplomats told Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton that in meetings with Egyptian leaders, she should defer to Egyptian self-regard as the indispensable Arab state while acknowledging that the perception is long past its due date.

Tracking the cables that straddle the Bush and Obama administrations also demonstrates that on some matters policies have changed little, if at all.

Stuart Levey, the treasury undersecretary charged with enforcing Iran sanctions, reassured Israeli Mossad chief Meir Dagan in December 2008 that President Obama was as determined as George W. Bush to isolate Iran through sanctions. Within a few weeks, Obama would confirm the point by reappointing Levey to the job, ensuring consistency.

The leaks also show Iranian and Syrian duplicity. A 2008 memo, apparently from an Iranian source, details how Iran used the cover of the Iranian Red Crescent to smuggle officers into Lebanon in 2006 to assist in Hezbollah’s war against Israel. Syria apparently provided sophisticated weapons to Hezbollah within weeks of pledging to U.S. officials that it would not do so.

Some of those named in the leaks worried that their publication could inhibit frank dialogue.

U.S. Rep. Jane Harman (D-Calif.) was outraged that her private exchange with Netanyahu on Iran and Palestinian issues in a 2009 meeting became public knowledge.

“If Congress has no ability to have candid conversations with foreign leaders, we won’t have some of the critical information we need to make the judgments we need to make about countries like Iran,” she told The Daily Beast.

In condemning the leaks, Clinton said Monday that they represent policymaking only in its most nascent stages. Once the heavy hitters become involved, the policy is changed. So the content of the leaked cables is not of vital importance, she argued.

“I want to make clear that our official foreign policy is not set through these messages but here in Washington,” Clinton said. “Our policy is a matter of public record, as reflected in our statements and our actions around the world.”

But the cables reveal policy discussions in blunter terms and show the inner workings of intergovernmental relationships that the parties would rather have kept private.

Saudi Arabia, for example, is shown in the cables to be beating the war drum for a U.S. attack against Iran — a stance quite different from its public posture.

In a 2008 meeting, the Saudi ambassador to United States reminds U.S. Gen. David Petraeus, the commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East, about the multiple times Saudi King Abdullah called on the United States to “cut off the head of the snake” — attack Iran to stop its nuclear program.

But the message is not consistent. Other cables describe meetings in the Persian Gulf with Arab officials, including Saudis, who counsel against a strike, saying that the backlash would be incalculable.

The cables least prone to such disparity may be those that describe meetings with Israeli officials. Successive Israeli prime ministers and defense ministers all say the same things — and in the same ways that they do in briefings with reporters.

Meeting this week with Israeli reporters after WikiLeaks began publishing the cables, Netanyahu said the Israeli government takes pains to make sure the most sensitive discussions are kept private.

“It influences our work, what we do in meetings, who we bring into meetings, what we say in them, and when we narrow the meeting to two people,” he was quoted as saying by the Jerusalem Post.

The most important exchanges between the U.S. and Israeli governments are not detailed in the cables because top U.S. and Israeli political leaders speak directly to each other.

The cables leaked by WikiLeaks, about 1 percent of which have been published so far, have low secrecy classifications and were written by relatively low-level diplomats. They were stored in a computer system that more than 2 million people had clearance to access.

Newspapers reported this week that a U.S. soldier, Bradley Manning, is allegedly behind the leaks to WikiLeaks. Manning, a private, is facing trial in another leaks case.

JTA Wire Service

 
 

Fixing leaks and the Middle East

The United States continues to deal with repercussions of the WikiLeaks revelations, while the Israel-Palestinian conflict has taken a new turn.

WikiLeaks and Lockerbie

WikiLeaks revealed last week that Libya threatened Great Britain with “harsh, immediate” consequences if Abdel Baset al-Megrahi, the sole person convicted in the bombing of Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, died in prison. Megrahi, who was diagnosed with prostate cancer while serving his life sentence, was released from Scottish prison in August 2009 after doctors said he had only months to live.

Inside the Beltway

Megrahi’s release sparked protests in the United States, especially from New Jersey’s representatives in Washington. Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) has repeatedly called for a Senate investigation into Megrahi’s release. Calls to Lautenberg’s office were not returned.

Rep. Steve Rothman (D-9), told The Jewish Standard earlier this week that the latest batch of WikiLeaks documents contained “virtually no surprises” but the revelations have damaged the diplomatic flexibility of the United States and other nations.

“I find it ironic that a group that claims to be for peace would place a chilling effect on international diplomacy for the foreseeable future,” he said. “The United States government has taken immediate steps and begun long-range efforts to minimize the chances of such a massive leak of classified documents. There will never be any leak-proof system, but this latest round of WikiLeak releases has engendered the appropriate level of serious attention to these matters.”

Money for Iron Dome

The House of Representatives passed a continuing resolution last week to fund the rest of fiscal year 2011 by a vote of 212 to 206. Included in the spending bill, which divided Democrats and Republicans, was $205 million for Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system, which the Jewish state is developing to defend against kassam rockets.

In a statement to the Standard, Rothman said he was “extremely pleased and proud that President Obama’s allocation for Israel’s Iron Dome program was included in the House’s funding bill for the upcoming year.

“This was a priority of Congress and President Obama, and it is the first funding of its kind for this important short-range rocket and artillery shell defense system.”

The allocation is in addition to the more-than-$200 million already allocated for the Arrow and David’s Sling missile defense systems, jointly developed by Israel and the United States.

“This funding sends a strong message, to both our enemies and allies, by providing more total dollars than ever before toward these rocket and missile defense programs,” Rothman said.

Rep. Bill Pascrell Jr. (D-8) voted for the bill, but Rep. Scott Garrett (R-5) joined with other House Republicans in opposing the bill because of other spending attached to it.

“At a time when American families are making personal sacrifices to reduce their family budgets and cut back expenses, I could not in good conscience vote for a federal spending bill that fails to do the same,” Garrett said in a statement to the Standard. “It’s unfortunate that the Iron Dome defense system had to be attached to such a controversial spending bill. I have long advocated separating U.S. funding assistance for Israel’s defense from contentious measures like the bill voted on last week.”

Palestine: To be or not to be

Two South American countries last month recognized the state of Palestine on the 1967 armistice lines. Increasingly, voices within the Palestinian Authority are calling for unilateral recognition by the United Nations of a Palestinian state, bypassing negotiations with Israel. The unilateral threats have been condemned in Washington, where members of Congress have begun to reconsider Palestinian financial aid.

Palestinian aid is important to U.S. and Israeli interests, as well as the Palestinians and peace process, Rothman said. “However, should the Palestinian Authority take unilateral actions, such as declaring itself a state without a prior agreement with the Jewish State of Israel, then the United States must seriously re-examine whether the Palestinian Authority is an appropriate recipient of U.S. foreign aid.”

Rothman called the South American recognition of Palestine “misguided and unhelpful” and said it would have “no practical effect” other than to draw negative attention from the United States.

“Instead of making pointless threats to unilaterally declare statehood, the Palestinian Authority must demonstrate its seriousness as a partner for peace with Israel and return to direct negotiations with Israel without preconditions and to resolve these matters in the interest of both parties,” he said.

Garrett also lashed out against Palestinian unilateral moves in a statement to the Standard, saying that such moves undermine the peace process and cause instability.

“This year, terrorists based in Gaza have fired hundreds of rockets and mortar shells into Israeli communities,” he said. “These human rights violations cannot be overlooked and I believe the P.A. has an obligation to discontinue attacks on Israel and affirm Israel’s right to exist as a sovereign state.”

Garrett and Rothman joined 50 other House members in co-sponsoring a resolution, which passed a vote on Wednesday, in support of “a negotiated solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and condemning unilateral measures to declare or recognize a Palestinian state, and for other purposes.” The resolution also calls on President Obama to deny recognition of a unilaterally declared Palestine and oppose global recognition.

 
 

The father of a victim takes another look at Lockerbie

 

Some Arab conspiracy theorists seeing WikiLeaks-Israel link

Unless you’re a reader of Islamist websites, you’d probably be surprised to learn that the WikiLeaks trove of U.S. diplomatic cables is an Israeli conspiracy.

Wonder why there was so much material about Arab regimes petitioning the United States to contain Iran’s nuclear program? How about why there was conspicuously little in the trove of data that was embarrassing to Israel?

It’s because WikiLeaks founder and director Julian Assange struck a deal with Israel and the “Israel lobby” to withhold documents that might embarrass the Jewish state — at least that’s what Al Manar, the Hezbollah-run media outlet, and Al Haqiqa, which is affiliated with a Syrian opposition group, are writing. The conspiracy theories are percolating as well on far-left and far-right websites.

“Why [did] the hundreds of thousands of American classified documents leaked … not contain anything that may embarrass the Israeli government?” asked a Dec. 8 story on Indymedia UK, an independent online news organization. “The answer appears to be a secret deal struck between Wikileaks … [and] Israeli officials, which ensured that all such documents were ‘removed’ before the rest were made public.”

Israeli officials haven’t even bothered to respond to the allegations.

“We don’t comment on such ludicrous claims” was how Yoni Peled, spokesman for the Israeli Embassy in Washington, put it. But the Anti-Defamation League issued a statement last week detailing some of the rumors and denouncing them as conspiracy theories cooked up by Israel’s enemies.

Comparing it to persistent rumors that Israel was behind the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, ADL National Director Abraham Foxman called the theories “yet another manifestation of the Big Lie against Jews and Israel.”

The “WikiLeaks affair has given new life to the old conspiracy theories of underhanded Jewish and Israeli involvement in an event with significant repercussions for the U.S. and many nations around the world,” Foxman said.

Ben Cohen, associate communications director for the American Jewish Committee and an expert on anti-Semitism, said the conspiracy theorists haven’t gotten far, even in the Arab world.

“I’ve seen them, but not in any mainstream outlets,” Cohen told JTA. “Nor do I get the sense they have picked up huge traction.”

The story, however, also has surfaced in the United States, at the Arab Times and the Arab Voice, Arab-American community papers in Texas and New Jersey.

Cohen says it’s unlikely that Assange would strike any deal with Israel. WikiLeaks’ representative in Russia is a well-known Holocaust denier who spews anti-Semitic and anti-Israeli diatribes from his home in Sweden, often under aliases. His real name is Israel Shamir, a convert to Orthodox Christianity who claims to have been born Jewish.

“The idea that WikiLeaks is in league with the Israelis is hugely undermined by their relationship with Shamir,” Cohen said.

Sharif Nashashibi, chairman of Arab Media Watch, a London-based nonprofit that monitors the British media for its coverage of the Arab and Muslim world, says the articles he’s seen are all reprinting the same Indymedia story.

“This claim certainly isn’t prevalent in the Arab and Muslims worlds, and that’s most likely because it has no solid basis,” Nashashibi wrote JTA in an e-mail. He noted that Israel indeed has been mentioned in the cables leaked by WikiLeaks, contrary to what the conspiracy theorists claimed.

“Without any credible supporting evidence, this claim is merely a baseless conspiracy theory that doesn’t warrant serious attention from any concerned parties, including the ADL,” Nashashibi wrote.

Foxman says the reports do merit concern, irrespective of their veracity or number.

“These things feed on themselves and circulate and recirculate,” Foxman said, citing the persistence of the 9/11 conspiracy theory even a decade later and despite a mountain of evidence to the contrary. “It’s not rational; it has political expediency. That’s what fuels it.”

JTA Wire Service

 
 

Media, old and new, helped Egyptian revolution

 
 
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