Editor's Notes: Stranger than fiction

I dreamed up an Israeli-empathetic cable last week. Turned out the former US ambassador had written the genuine article.

Abbas 311 AP (photo credit: AP)
Abbas 311 AP
(photo credit: AP)
In this column last week, I manufactured a spoof WikiLeaks cable, purportedly written by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, setting out an ostensible “recalibration” of the Obama administration’s policy as regards the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
I didn’t see much danger of anyone mistaking it for a genuine diplomatic document. Certainly, I made it sound somewhat authentic by following some of the formatting and linguistic conventions of such cables. But there were three pretty big clues that this was a fake.
First: The WikiLeaks US State Department deluge includes nothing from the past few months, and I dated my secretary of state’s directive December 10, 2010 – just a few days ago. It is highly unlikely that even the best-connected newspaper editor would gain access to so fresh a genuine cable. And if an editor did, it would be front-page, leadto- the-paper, global-headlinemaking news, not material for an opinion piece.
Second clue: I used the word “WikaLikes” in the headline. “WikaLikes.” As in, “LookaLikes.” As in, not the genuine article!
And third, there was the not insignificant matter of the content. This was “Secretary Clinton” writing what I would like to think Secretary Clinton ought to want to be writing, rather than staking out the kinds of positions that she and the Obama administration actually have been taking – positions that have included a heavy public focus on settlements; positions that, to my mind, have indicated an unfortunately exaggerated confidence in the willingness and capacity of Mahmoud Abbas’s Palestinian Authority to agree to the necessary compromises for a peace accord; positions that, I further believe, have reflected a failure to internalize, on the one hand, the widespread Israeli willingness to trade land for real peace, and, on the other, the deep Israeli skepticism about Palestinian readiness to meet us halfway.
Could any reader seriously imagine Hillary Clinton truly writing to her State Department team, as I had her writing in my “cable,” phrases such as “Recognized that previous 10-month freeze was wasted by Palestinian Authority, which failed to enter direct talks in good faith”? Or “USG conscious of PA President Abbas’s failure to capitalize on former PM Olmert’s terms”? Or “Israeli mainstream commitment, interest in accommodation hitherto underestimated by this Administration”? Or “Palestinian commitment, interest in accommodation hitherto overestimated by this Administration”?
Of course not, I figured. And more’s the pity.
Well, I was wrong.
Despite the implausibility of me getting my hands on such a document and burying it in a column rather than leading the paper with it; despite that “WikaLikes” headline; and despite the cable’s strikingly Israel-considerate (though not, in my opinion, Israel-apologist) tone, many readers did seize upon it as an authentic Clinton directive – to their dismay or their delight, depending on their own positions.
And a number of people who have been involved in the American- Israeli diplomatic process wrote directly to me, wondering about the cable’s origin and asking for more details. One such correspondent, smelling a rat, noted that there seemed to be rather too many pro-Israeli assumptions.
Indeed so, I responded to him sadly.
Which is where things get more interesting.
ON MONDAY of this week, WikiLeaks released a new batch of Israel-related diplomatic cables. Genuine, leaked US State Department documents. These featured all kinds of interesting tidbits and revelations, notably including Israeli security figures’ downbeat assessments of Abbas and the PA, and their upbeat assessments of Syrian President Bashar Assad’s peacemaking capacity.
Also in the new batch was the classified section of a “scenesetter” cable prepared by the former US ambassador here, Richard Jones – a kind of overview of the Israeli psyche drawn up for relevant senior American officials just as Israel marked its 60th anniversary in May 2008 and shortly before a three-day visit to Israel by then-president George W. Bush.
Let me digress for a moment to make something clear: I do not endorse the slogan utilized by WikiLeaks on its website: “Keep us strong. Help WikiLeaks keep governments open.”
The democratic pact involves empowering elected leaderships to safeguard our interests as they see fit, subject to their ouster if and when the electorate determines that others can do the job better. It does not require that those leaderships be so transparent to friend and enemy alike – so “open,” to use the WikiLeaks term – as to doom their capacity to act effectively on their citizens’ behalf. When democratic governments led by Washington are battling rapacious and tyrannical regimes across the globe, publicizing the US diplomatic hierarchy’s classified conversations, analyses and directives does far more to undermine that struggle than to advance it.
Nonetheless, among the outweighed advantages of the WikiLeaks breach has been to make plain to the public, in almost real time, how impressive the American diplomatic corps truly is, how conscientious and astute are so many of its envoys, and how important their assessments. Richard Jones’s May 2008 “scenesetter” is a peerless case in point.
Many of the documents leaked so far pertaining to this region contain far more dramatic content than the Jones paper. But none better demonstrates a real understanding of Israel and a grounded empathy with the Israeli public – its challenges, its concerns, its moods, its guiding mindset. And there is no single cable that I would rather commend as vital reading for those who, whether because of predetermined hostility or ignorance, misrepresent us.
The same selection of documents leaked on Monday included a June 2009 cable from Paris in which US officials reported home on the stark, threepronged message that President Nicolas Sarkozy was about to deliver to Binyamin Netanyahu at a meeting in the French capital that month.
“You think you’ve got time, but you don’t,” Sarkozy was set to admonish the prime minister. “You think you have an alternative solution, but you don’t. You think you’re stronger than the Palestinians, but you’re not.”
I wish Sarkozy had been able to read Jones’s cable. He would have gleaned – not from a selfinterested Israeli official or analyst, but from a professional American diplomat – the sense that mainstream Israel does not feel that time is on its side where peacemaking with the Palestinians and the wider region is concerned. That mainstream Israel does not believe it has an alternative to a viable two-state solution with the Palestinians. And that mainstream Israel is not too cocky about its “strength,” however that might be defined.
THE JONES cable “gets” Israel to a quite remarkable degree.
Indeed, it presents precisely the kind of realist’s insights into Israel that I, last week, put into my fake Secretary Clinton cable. The kind of insights that I knew, or thought I knew, would be perceived as too Israel-empathetic to feature in a genuine cable.
Boy was I wrong. Here were insights along similar lines, set out in an articulate cable written ahead of a presidential visit by none other than the very top American diplomat here.
The ambassador began by poignantly describing a country that was “preparing to celebrate the sixtieth anniversary of its declaration of independence on May 8 with a characteristically Israeli mix of pride in their achievements and worry about the future.”
In a section headed “Israeli Pride Justified,” Jones wrote admiringly of the realization of the “desperate dream” of a “strong, democratic Jewish state that would be a haven for Jews everywhere.”
Today, he reported, “Israel is very much a reality, with a vibrantly original Hebrew-speaking cultural life, a Tel Aviv skyline dominated by gleaming skyscrapers, a booming high tech-based economy, and the strongest army in the Middle East.”
Israel, he went on, “is firmly Western in its values but also more diverse ethnically and culturally, less Europe-oriented, and decidedly more capitalist than the Israel founded largely by East European-born socialists. For all of its problems with finding the right electoral formula to bring about stable governments, Israel’s democracy is also a thriving reality. Israel is the only Middle Eastern country in which its citizens take for granted the peaceful transfer of political power via the ballot box.”
Critically and commendably, the ambassador then penned a section titled “And Anxieties are Real” where he noted that “the looming threat of a nucleararmed Iran, whose leaders constantly declare their determination to wipe Israel off the map, weighs heavily on the minds of Israelis, who regard their country not only through the prism of the Holocaust but also as the only UN member-state to be routinely threatened with annihilation.Iran’s success in projecting power directly into the core of the Arab- Israeli conflict through its ties to Syria, Hizballah and Hamas compounds the sense of threat.”
Most pertinently, when he came to the Palestinians, Jones correctly stated that “a solid majority of Israelis has come to accept the need for a Palestinian state and for Israel to relinquish control of most of the West Bank... Gone are the days when many Israelis questioned the existence of a Palestinian national identity, and today only a small minority – though still an outspoken and determined one – continues to articulate a demand to retain control of all of the West Bank for religious/historical reasons.”
And then, in what I consider the most important observation of all, Jones drew the contours of the crucial Israeli mainstream dilemma – the dilemma that I feel has been so underestimated by, among others, key figures in the Obama presidency.
“One problem, however,” the ambassador wrote, “is the lack of a broad-based Israeli confidence in the Palestinians’ capacity to hold up their end of the land-forpeace bargain.”
When I first read that sentence, I offered a silent thank you. A thank you to Jones for stating what so many Israelis see as so blindingly obvious but what, to our frustration, seems to have eluded so many of our critics and even some of our friends. Yes, we want to make peace with the Palestinians. No, unfortunately, we are not convinced that they want to make peace with us.
It is worth noting that the ambassador, who ended his three-year term here later in 2008 to become deputy head of the Paris-based International Energy Agency, chose not to express his own judgment as to whether Israelis are right or wrong to doubt the Palestinians’ land-for-peace bona fides. It is also worth stressing that there is nothing here or elsewhere in the cable that contradicts the conviction – shared by successive American administrations, much of the international community and many Israelis – that Israel’s selfinterest requires it to do absolutely everything in its power to encourage a genuine Palestinian commitment to peace.
I DON’T doubt that senior members of the Bush administration scrutinized this cable, and it may have helped shape their ongoing Middle East thinking and policymaking.I wonder how widely it has been read, and if read, internalized, within the Obama administration.
At present, senior US administration officials are working assiduously to revive the diplomatic process – and are said to be pessimistic about their prospects.On the final-status issues of Jerusalem and border demarcation, differences are persistent and wide. Less progress has been made on security issues than widely reported. There has been some shift in the Palestinian position on the refugee issue, but no breakthrough.
Overall, the struggle for substantive progress, always difficult, has been exacerbated by the missteps of the past two years.Instead of broadcasting, along with empathy for Palestinian sovereign aspirations, Jones-style understanding of Israeli concerns, the new administration, publicly at least, seemed to be applying far more pressure in Jerusalem than Ramallah, based on the apparent conception that it was the Israelis, more than the Palestinians, who were set against concessions.
The doubly counterproductive effect was to signal to the Palestinians that they could hold to maximalist positions, while reducing the Israeli government’s incentive to engage more substantively on the key issues.
I WROTE a fake cable last week, which incidentally included no little criticism of Netanyahu – “negotiating stance and actions inconclusive, even unhelpful...”; “distressingly unforthcoming in aborted direct talks” – setting out what I thought could constitute reasonable American positions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I wrote it because it has seemed to me that the administration had fallen prey to certain misconceptions and misjudgments, and that this was a factor in the failure to make the progress in which mainstream Israelis, moderate Palestinians, regional moderates and the US all share a paramount interest. I wrote it because, among others, I wanted people in the administration to read it.
The minor consequent irony is that some people mistook it for the genuine article – a belated, Clinton-ordered, dramatic recalibration of policy. The greater, depressing irony is that it turns out that a document citing various similar perspectives – an authentic, secret, diplomatic cable, overflowing with sensible assessments of the most critical issues – had been written two and a half years ago, by Washington’s ambassador here.
Maybe as of this week, now that all of us can read and appreciate its wisdom, this genuine, fair-minded and perceptive document will garner its deserved resonance, most notably in the highest echelons of the US diplomatic hierarchy for which it was originally prepared.