The Wikileaks Files: Palestine, Israel, and the U.S.

The Wikileaks Files: The World According to US Empire. New York: Verso, 2015. 

The progressive publishing house Verso has put out a new edited volume on the Wikileaks files. The chapters are categorized along national or regional borders where U.S. diplomatic cables first emerged: Syria, Turkey, Russia, et cetera. International relations scholar Stephen Zunes (University of San Francisco) and foreign policy expert Peter Certo take on the Israel files.

It comes as no surprise that the authors find that the internal U.S. deliberations convey “US officials blithely accepting ongoing Israeli violations of international humanitarian law, UN Security Council resolutions, and a landmark ruling by the International Court of Justice against Israeli settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territories.” No one needs a security clearance to watch apologetic bromides for Israeli occupation and colonization at a State Department press conference.

The account gets interesting when private correspondence diverges from public statements. While the Obama administration was publicly faulting “both sides” for impasses in the so-called “peace process;” behind closed doors, officials put more of the blame on the right-wing government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu. One November 2009 cable [09TELAVIV2473] prepared for a visiting U.S. deputy secretary of state relates that even those Israeli officials skeptical of a final peace agreement with the Palestinians “are worried that the lack of a political dialogue and talk of a collapse of the [Palestinian Authority or PA] are undermining the bottom-up approach they advocate as the alternative to a final-status agreement” [Emphasis ours]. For the Israeli officials, support for “bottom-up” investment in the West Bank’s civic and private institutions is an attempt to secure permanent occupation in the name of “economic peace.” These officials only worry themselves when the absence of a choreographed “peace process” might unveil the ruse.

Bibi The Generous

In a 2009 meeting with a visiting U.S. Congressional delegation, Netanyahu reportedly claimed that he had made extraordinary concessions to the Palestinians, which amounted to “arrangements” for a state that would have neither an army nor control over its “borders, airspace, and the electromagnetic spectrum.” Still, Netanyahu portrayed a Palestinians state without even the mundane aspects of sovereignty a “concessions for peace,” but, alas, Netanyahu claimed, Israelis “do not believe they have a Palestinian partner” [09TELAVIV1184].

Where could one find a Palestinian willing to reciprocate Israel’s supposed generosity? Certainly not the Palestinian Authority, according to Bibi. Netanyahu told U.S Representative Ike Skelton (D-MO) that his acceptance (at a 2009 speech at Bar-Ilan University) of a truncated Palestinian state “had been difficult for him,” but this sacrifice had gone unappreciated by the PA’s leadership, “which [Netanyahu] said is maintaining a ‘political and economic boycott’ of Israel … and is now talking about a unilateral declaration of independence” [09TELAVIV2777].

The PA can hardly boycott Israel, as it remains dependent on its occupier (which even registers Palestinian births and deaths, and collects and distributes tax revenues); but Israel, along with Egypt, enforces a stifling “political and economic boycott” of Gaza. And Bibi’s generosity and good faith is as such that he “insisted that he would never allow a single Palestinian refugee to return to Israel” [07TELAVIV1114].

Settlements

According to Netanyahu, the Obama administration was being “unfair” when it requested a “freeze” on all illegal settlement construction in the occupied West Bank. For Netanyahu, fairness dictated that the U.S. would allow for settlement construction within existing settlements to accommodate “natural growth” [09TELAVIV1184]. The premier reportedly claimed that the Israeli public shared his support for the expansion of existing settlement blocs, which is contrary to international law.

There is nothing “natural” about the population growth of Israeli settlements: A set of state-incentives, including cheaper housing and tax cuts, has produced a growth rate “about twice as fast as Israel overall,” as reported in the New York Times.

Furthermore, the Obama administration’s request had been in line with Netanyahu’s own declared pledge at the aforementioned speech endorsing a two-state solution: “We have no intention of building new settlements or of expropriating additional land for existing settlements.” With the prime minister publicly challenging the “freeze” call, the suspicion among seasoned observers that the speech had been an empty gesture meant to humor Western officials was quickly borne out.

In the end, Bibi got his way: “Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak told French officials in Paris June 15 that the Israelis have a ‘secret accord’ with the USG to continue the ‘natural growth’ of Israeli settlements in the West Bank” [09PARIS827]. The inevitable capitulation was later made public.

Relations with the Palestinian Authority

The cables shed great light on Israel’s security relationship with the Palestinian Authority and, despite private and public complaints, the ultimate utility of the PA for the Israeli occupation. Entreated by one visiting Congressman to prop up PA President Mahmoud Abbas’ faltering regime, Netanyahu proposed allowing Arab investors from the Gulf kingdoms to invest in the West Bank. The congressman agrees, but suggests allowing Abbas to claim it as his idea [09TELAVIV1184].

Another cable conveys the cooperation between the PA security forces and the Israeli domestic intelligence agency [07TELAVIV1732]:

“In the West Bank, [Israeli Security Agency (ISA) head Yuval] Diskin said that ISA has established a very good working relationship with the [PA’s] Preventive Security Organization (PSO) … Diskin said that the PSO shares with ISA almost all the intelligence that it collects. They understand that Israel’s security is central to their survival in the struggle with Hamas in the West Bank.”

It’s not all nice-niceties. A point of disagreement with the PA is its refusal to repress peaceful Palestinian demonstrations against Israeli land theft and settlement encroachment. Sidestepping the legitimate grievances behind the protests, Israeli Major General Avi Mizrachi “warned that he would start sending his trucks with ‘dirty water’ to break up these protests, even if they are not violent, because they serve no purpose other than creating friction” [10TELAVIV344].

Nota Bene: The Israeli major general “whose area of responsibility includes all of the West Bank” precludes Palestinians from even peacefully defending their homes and lands. Next time an apologist for Israeli occupation asks “why can’t the Palestinians protest peacefully?” and conditions his otherwise ostensibly forthcoming support on Palestinian non-violence make sure to cite Mizrachi’s violent threats and his sending of subordinates, in typical colonial and arrogant fashion, to dictate to “Palestinians security force commanders … that they must stop these demonstrations or the IDF will” [10TELAVIV344].

Lessons Learned?

There are many other cables worth unpacking, and Zunes and Cetro skillfully navigate Wikileaks’ treasure trove. For our purposes, one additional cable merits attention, which makes for contrarian reading among those inclined toward the view that the U.S.-Israel relationship is one of “‘the tail wagging the dog,’ or of US diplomats cowering under pressure by the vaunted ‘Israel Lobby.'” Zunes and Certro argue that American backing for Israel is rooted in the “perception, however misguided, that US and Israeli interests almost always coincide.” If those interests are not aligned, “there is nothing preventing Washington from charting a course independent of Israel’s–if it can find the political will.” By way of example, they relate a discussion between U.S. diplomats and Israeli generals over Israel’s QME (qualitative military edge) in light of Washington’s arming of its Arab Sunni allies in the Persian Gulf.

Israeli generals Amos Gilad and Benny Gantz concede that Israel’s interests in the region are so narrow that they may “often clash with broader American security interests in the region” [i.e., arming Arab states to counter Iranian influence, which would entail a loss for Israel’s military advantage]. Gilad and Gantz similarly concede that Washington will pursue its interests and that not all regional decisions “will break in its favor, but that Israel only expects a fair and equitable process that incorporates ‘intimate dialogue'” [09TELAVIV2482].

As recent events demonstrate, the U.S.-Israel relationship is not solely shaped by Israeli lobbying prowess. Faced with apoplectic protestations against the 14 July Iran deal by Israel and its domestic allies, Washington was more than willing to sideline both in pursuit of its objective, and the Israel lobby stood as a helpless giant when confronted with a determined counter-veiling force.

But Israel is accorded a reception few other governments can expect, especially if they openly challenge American policy. Israel will continue to be treated to military guarantees and “intimate dialogue” with U.S. officials to air out its grievances, which will no doubt be respectfully weighted. Conversely, Palestinians interests count for very little in Washington where U.S.-Palestinian diplomacy is conducted as an adjunct of U.S.-Israeli relations. And the purpose of the former is to serve the interests and goals of the latter.

Moreover, in the foreseeable future, the would-be State of Palestine might never be a strategic objective akin to an historic agreement with Iran, which would mobilize the White House to face down the Israel lobby. While U.S. officials would rebuff Israeli protests when interests diverge, it would ignore the evidence to expect any rapture over Palestinian self-determination. Nearly 50 years of colonial occupation affirm the obvious fact that successive U.S. presidents do not believe Palestine is worth expending political capital.

Ultimately, as the authors conclude, “change will not likely come from the characters who populate the cables–but it might yet come from the people who read them.”