Monday, January 24, 2011

The Up and Downsides of Wikileaking

As reported in today's Haaretz, the British newspaper Guardian and Al-Jazeera TV have just jointly published some 1600 secret Palestinian documents, revealing that in 2008 Palestinian negotiators secretly offered Israel a number of sweeping concessions in return for a two-state settlement of the conflict: to allow almost all the recently established Jewish areas in East Jerusalem to be incorporated into Israel, to limit the Palestinian "right of return" to Israel to only 100,000 refugees, to establish joint Israeli-Palestinian administration of the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif, and to recognize Israel as a Jewish state--only to have then Israeli foreign minister, Tzipi Livni, reject the offer out of hand because "it does not meet our demands."

Is this sort of forced declassification of the most sensitive government documents, started by Wikileaks and now evidently spreading, a good thing or a bad thing? Well, it is certainly useful to those of us who write about foreign policy. And it is also a good thing when it reveals bad secrets--those that show governments lying about doing things they shouldn't be doing (torture, the Vietnam War, and more). Or when, as in this case, it reveals how far the Palestinians have been prepared to go to reach a two-state settlement, and how adamant Israel has been in preventing it.

On the other hand, there are also good secrets, especially those showing governments making necessary concessions to reach a desirable end--but which, if revealed, can cause a nationalist backlash that could undermine diplomacy and the chances for peaceful settlements of state conflicts. As in the Haaretz story: "PA leadership may have difficulty explaining the revelations to a public not ready to offer the same concessions."

It should have been obvious from the start that Wikileaking was going to have this kind of downside. How can quiet diplomacy work if bargaining and concessions, almost always necessary to reach agreements in conflicts that arouse nationalist or religious emotions, become public shortly thereafter? Consider this case: in the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, the closest we've come to nuclear annihilation, the Kennedy administration privately made several concessions to the Soviets to induce them to remove their missiles from Cuba--and then lied about it, denying it had made any concessions. If the concessions had been revealed at the time, there would have been an enormous rightwing outcry, possibly torpedoing the secret US-Soviet agreement that ended the crisis.

It is not difficult to imagine similar problems arising today, say from an Obama administration secret agreement with Iran that ended the Iranian potential nuclear threat, but only in return for substantial US concessions that would likely result in howls of outrage from the rightwing demogogues or fools that have become dangerously powerful in this country.

For these reasons, there are real risks that one of the consequences of Wikileaking will be that states will make fewer potentially unpopular but necessary concessions, or that they will do so without leaving a written trace of them, making governments less accountable for their actions, not more so. And, for that matter, making the efforts of journalists and scholars to discover historical truth less likely to succeed, not more so.

In short, while sometimes Wikileaking will serve the public interest, in other ways it will undermine it. It is much too soon to know what the balance will be, but I'm inclined to think the harm will outweigh the good.


Richard Witty said...

I didn't analyze the article to the extent that you did, or hit on irritation points.

I think they both, like the majority of the diplomatic world, are frustrated that even with the obvious known goals of a safe and defined Israel, and a viable and healthy West Bank/Gaza Palestine, that no actually consented agreement/proposal has emerged.

They don't see any other option than a two-state approach, and are grappling for what will construct the rubber on the road to make it happen.

From my perspective, the Palestine Papers had two effects. One was to show the angry world that the PA made compromises and could not be trusted. The other was to show to the west and nakedly to the Israeli public, that the PA made compromises and could be trusted.

The uprisings in Tunisia, and more importantly in Egypt, raised Israel's and the diplomatic world's attention, and threatened to put Israel back into the status of surrounded, which then justifies/compels a risk-averse approach.

The message of confidence in the PA from the Palestine Papers, shifted to a message of fear with the Palestine Papers accompanied by the street. (In this case, the street was more mature than the media, more focused, more restrained, also a cause for confidence if can be maintained.)

With confidence in the PA, and absence of threat of being surrounded, the Israeli electorate has scope to vote out likud. That Netanyahu and Kadima at the times when it resembled likud's reasoning, presided over the devolution of long-labored goodwill with Turkey, PA, Jordan (Abdullah has not met with Netanyahu), Egypt, is not a good electoral contention.

While Israelis may argue that security does not come from naive goodwill, they do acknowledge that security also does not come from opportunism and impunity.

Anonymous said...

I feel like there is an elitist contempt for the masses in criticism of leaks. In a democracy, people are entitled to know the kind of dealing and wheeling goes behind the screen. In fact, given the cynicism of the politicians in USA, the best that can happen to our democracy is to have some of those conversations that our politicians have with lobbyists leaked. Cherry picking historical examples like Cuban crisis does not diminish the importance of public's becoming aware of what is done in their names.
By the way, there can be no compromise on human rights. This includes right of return. It is an indcividual right. State, in this case, PA cannot give it away.

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