Washington Watch: Risky business: Speaking truth to power

The angry reaction of the political higher-ups to the Tamir cable is likely to have a chilling effect on other Israeli diplomats.

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August 19, 2009 22:13
3 minute read.
Washington Watch: Risky business: Speaking truth to power

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Avigdor Lieberman seems to have some problems with the truth. The man police have recommended indicting on numerous corruption charges tried to dump a respected diplomat whose main offense appears to be telling the truth. The foreign minister used the same term to shrug off prosecutors' accusations of bribery, breach of trust, money laundering and obstruction of justice as he did to dismiss a report from an Israeli consul-general warning of "strategic damage" to US-Israel relations by the Netanyahu government's policies. It's all "politically motivated," he declared. There's an old saying that a diplomat is a gentleman sent abroad to lie for his country. Lieberman apparently expects his diplomats to lie to their country as well. He was infuriated when a three-page cable, titled "Melancholy thoughts on Israel-US relations," by Nadav Tamir, the consul-general in Boston, warned Jerusalem's actions are aggravating the tensions between the two governments. "The manner in which we are conducting relations with the American administration is causing strategic damage to Israel," Tamir wrote. The harm isn't only at the highest level of government but many American Jewish supporters of Israel have also been alienated by those policies, he noted. AT A time when Washington is trying to "lower the profile of the disagreements," he said, Jerusalem is "highlighting the differences." The Netanyahu government's ploy to turn the dispute over settlements into one involving Jewish rights in Jerusalem by evicting Arab families from their east Jerusalem homes so Jews could move in only exacerbated the worst crisis in relations between the two allies since the last time Binyamin Netanyahu was prime minister. "There are American and Israeli political elements who oppose Obama on an ideological basis and who are ready to sacrifice the special relationship between the two countries for the sake of their own political agendas," Tamir wrote. Is Netanyahu encouraging a bitter anti-Obama campaign being waged by conservative elements in some American Jewish organizations in New York and Washington reminiscent of the 2008 election-year "enemy of Israel" attacks on the Democratic nominee? That effort backfired and many political pros say it even helped enlarge - not diminish - Jewish support for Obama. A Netanyahu spokesman accused Tamir of a professional breech by expressing "political views" not in line with those of the prime minister, and Lieberman said any diplomat who won't toe the company line should quit. Not so, insisted Alon Liel, a former director-general of the Foreign Ministry. He praised Tamir's cable as "the kind of report professional diplomacy was created for." A diplomat's job, he said, is to "report what you see and what you hear, and add your best interpretation." "Our leadership in Israel is colliding with an extremely popular American president and with a superpower whose approval rating is increasing all over the world except in Israel," he said. Rep. Barney Frank (D-Massachusetts), who knows Tamir from his service as congressional liaison as well as consul-general in Boston, wrote to Netanyahu that truth telling should be encouraged, not punished. "If the people who work for me did not give me the kind of straightforward, thoughtful analysis that the consul is providing, even if it wasn't the most welcome news, that failure - not the information - would cause me unhappiness." Frank called Tamir's cable "accurate reporting of significant sentiment" among many of Israel's American supporters. "I think it is important that the government have a full understanding of the sentiments that may erode that support." Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon, who wrote an anti-Obama op-ed piece for US papers in last year's campaign, dismissed the consul's criticisms as merely reflecting Boston's liberal "bubble," and insisted bilateral ties are "as strong as ever" despite some "minor differences." In more than 30 years of observing the Israeli diplomatic scene, I've seen cables leaked by officials from top to bottom. The motivations have ranged from personal and political rivalries to high policy. Sometimes, unknown to the author, they go to favorite reporters before they even get to intended recipient. In one instance, a superior held up a subordinate's cable so he could rewrite it and take credit for the other man's work. Despite calls for Tamir's sacking, a wiser head, Director-General Yossi Gal, reprimanded him for giving the memo wide distribution but not for its content. The angry reaction of the political higher-ups to the Tamir cable is likely to have a chilling effect on other Israeli diplomats who will be reluctant to report home anything Lieberman and Netanyahu don't want - but need - to hear. Twisting the facts to please politicians, particularly if their policy is damaging relations with the country's most important ally, is a dereliction of duty. It takes a lot of courage to speak truth to power. And it takes courageous leaders to listen.

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