Monday, 08 January 2007, 16:38
S E C R E T SECTION 01 OF 03 TEL AVIV 000064
EO 12958 DECL: 01/05/2017
TAGS PREL, PTER, PGOV, IS, KWBG
SUBJECT: SCENESETTER FOR THE SECRETARY'S JANUARY 13-15 VISIT TO ISRAEL
Classified By: Ambassador Richard H. Jones, Reason 1.4 (b) (d)
1. (S) Madam Secretary, internal tensions among GOI leaders have intensified since your last visit and have reached the point that there appears to be little coordination or even dialogue among the key decision makers. Therefore, we will need to be sensitive to perceptions that we are favoring one faction over another. The divisions at the top here are part of an increasingly gloomy public mood, with a new corruption allegations making headlines virtually daily, and a growing sense of political failure despite Israel's strong economy and a sustained success rate in thwarting suicide attacks. Prime Minister Olmert's approval ratings were only 23 percent in the latest poll, and Israeli interlocutors across the political spectrum are speaking openly of a crisis of public confidence in the country's leadership at a time when Israelis feel an urgent need for strong leadership to face the threats from Iran, Syria, Hamas and Hezbollah.
2. (S) The year 2007 has started off badly for Israelis. The good feeling generated by PM Olmert's long-delayed December 23 summit meeting with Abu Mazen quickly dissipated under the weight of reports of a new settlement in the Jordan Valley (now suspended by Peretz), continued Qassam rocket attacks on Sderot and neighboring kibbutzim, foot-dragging on both sides in implementing the transfer of tax revenues, lack of progress on the release of Cpl. Gilad Shalit, and the unpleasant atmospherics of the January 4 Olmert-Mubarak summit, which was overshadowed by a botched IDF daylight raid in the center of Ramallah in which four Palestinians were killed.
3. (S) The Ramallah operation, which was authorized by the IDF's West Bank commander without informing the Minister of Defense, served as a stark reminder of the lack of coordination between Israel's military and its civilian leadership. When it comes to Israel's strategy for dealing with Palestinians, it increasingly seems that military is military, civilian is civilian and never the twain shall meet! Despite Olmert's belated embrace of Abu Mazen as a peace partner, there is growing concern that moderate Arab willingness to maintain the embargo on Hamas may be eroding, and that Fatah may fail to muster the popular support it will need to depose Hamas, whether at the ballot box or in the streets. Meanwhile, the upcoming release of the results of the Winograd Commission's investigation of the Lebanon war hangs like a sword of Damocles over the heads of Olmert, Defense Minister Peretz, and IDF Chief of General Staff Halutz. Peretz and Halutz have both publicly stated that they will resign if the Commission holds them responsible for serious errors in the conduct of the war, but Olmert has refrained from public comments. Olmert is also awaiting the results of several separate investigations involving corruption allegations, any one of which could further damage him severely, if not force his resignation.
4. (S) While Israeli anxiety over a possible dramatic shift of U.S. policy as a result of the Iraq Study Group's report has been allayed by statements by you and the President, there continues to be deep uneasiness here that the Baker-Hamilton recommendations reflect the shape of things to come in U.S. policy. Israelis recognize that U.S. public support for the Iraq war is eroding and are following with interest the President's upcoming articulation of the revamped policy, but they are deeply concerned that Israeli-Palestinian issues not become linked in American minds to creating a more propitious regional environment for whatever steps we decide to take to address the deteriorating situation in Iraq.
5. (S) Iran's nuclear program continues to cause great anxiety in Israel. Given their history, Israelis across the political spectrum take very seriously Ahmadinejad's threats to wipe Israel off the map. Olmert has been quite clear in his public comments that Israel cannot tolerate a nuclear-armed Iran, a position stated even more emphatically by opposition leader Netanyahu, who compares today's Iran to Nazi Germany in 1938. Despite the worst-case assessments of Israeli intelligence, however, there is a range of views about what action Israel should take. The MFA and some of the think tank Iran experts appear increasingly inclined to state that military action must be a last resort and are taking a new interests in other forms of pressure, including but not limited to sanctions, that could force Iran to abandon its military nuclear program. The IDF, however, srikes us as more inclined than ever to look toward a military strike, whether launched by Israel or by us, as the only way to destroy or even delay Iran's plans. Thoughtful Israeli analysts point out that even if a nuclear-armed Iran did not immediately launch a strike on the Israeli heartland, the very fact that Iran possesses nuclear weapons would completely transform the Middle East strategic environment in ways that would make Israel's long-term survival as a democratic Jewish state increasingly problematic. That concern is most intensively reflected in open talk by those who say they do not want their children and grandchildren growing up in an Israel threatened by a nuclear-armed Iran.
TEL AVIV 00000064 002 OF 003
6. (C) FM Tzipi Livni is frustrated by Olmert's continued refusal to coordinate closely, and -- perhaps with an eye on polls showing her popularity at over double the level of the Prime Minister -- suggested to a Ha'aretz interviewer in late December that she would challenge Olmert for the prime ministership if he continued not to give her his full backing. In the same interview, Livni provided an outline of her thinking, but not a detailed plan, on the way ahead with the Arabs, including negotiating an interim agreement with the Palestinians in which the separation barrier would serve as the border, and refusing to engage with Syria unless Asad takes steps to end support for terrorism and distances himself from Iran. Livni's policy adviser has confirmed to us that she has engaged in her own discrete discussions with Palestinians, but very much in an exploratory mode. Livni told Senators Kerry and Dodd that she doubted that a final status agreement could be reached with Abu Mazen, and therefore the emphasis should be on reforming Fatah so that it could beat Hamas at the polls. MFA officials tell us that Livni is also focused on the need to keep Hamas isolated. She and her senior staff have repeatedly expressed concern that some EU member-states are wobbly on this point. Meanwhile, Livni is keenly aware that unlike Olmert, she has little to fear from the Winograd Commission report (nor is she tainted by the corruption allegations that dog Olmert). Her incipient bid to take Olmert's place could become more serious once the report's preliminary conclusions are released next month.
SHIFTING VIEWS ON SYRIA
7. (S) Olmert and Livni agree that negotiations with Syria would be a trap that Damascus would use to end the international pressure on it and to gain a freer hand in Lebanon. While they see public relations downsides to dismissing Syrian peace overtures out of hand, they continue to insist that no negotiations will be possible until Syria reduces its support for terrorism and/or takes direct steps to secure the release of Israeli prisoners held by Hamas and Hezbollah. Olmert and Livni are supported in that view by Mossad chief Dagan, who takes a dim view of Syrian intentions. A significant part of the security establishment, however, appears to be reaching the conclusion that it is in Israel's interest to test Asad's intentions -- possibly through the use of a back channel contact -- and to seek to wean him away from Tehran. They are joined in that view by Defense Minister Peretz, much of the Labor Party and the Israeli left, who argue that Israel cannot afford to refuse to at least explore Asad's offer to negotiate, often comparing that stance to Golda Meir's much-criticized decision to spurn Sadat's offer to negotiate, which then led to the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Press reports January 5 stated that the defense establishment had recommended to Olmert that he open an exploratory channel to Damascus in two months, a timeline reportedly linked to the completion of reviews of U.S. policy toward Iraq and the Middle East, as well as to clearer indications of Abu Mazen's intentions and capabilities vis a vis Hamas.
8. (C) According to leaks from a recent Labor Party leadership meeting, Amir Peretz said that he feels completely disconnected from Olmert. Ever since Peretz' telephone conversation with Abu Mazen which infuriated Olmert, the two reportedly barely speak to each other. Television news reports on January 4 trumpeted rumors that Olmert had decided to remove Peretz as Defense Minister and replace him with former Prime Minister Ehud Barak, who has already announced plans to challenge Peretz for the Labor Party's leadership in late May primaries. Even though the Prime Minister's Office almost immediately denied the reports, there is little doubt here that someone in the PMO was behind them. While much of the Labor Party feels that Peretz has been a failure, both as Defense Minister and as Party Secretary General, and Peretz' popularity with the general public has hit rock bottom, Labor members widely condemned the media trial balloon, which they saw as an unacceptable attempt by Olmert's advisers to intervene in their party's leadership contest. In any event, the incident is yet another indication of the intense degree of personal rancor and dysfunction prevailing at the top of the GOI.
TEL AVIV 00000064 003 OF 003
PERETZ AND SNEH OUR AMA PARTNERS
9. (C) Notwithstanding the GOI's internal discord, there is some good news in our efforts to nudge the GOI toward improvements in Palestinian quality of life issues. Despite his political woes, Peretz has proven himself a serious partner in our efforts to implement the Agreement on Movement and Access (AMA) and more generally in a slow but steady push by the MOD to force a reluctant IDF to accept steps to reduce barriers to Palestinian movement and to revive the Palestinian economy. Deputy Defense Minister Efraim Sneh, who will likely accompany Peretz to your meeting, has emerged as the point man for these efforts. Sneh shares Peretz' conviction that Israel's security stranglehold on the Palestinians is "winning the battle but losing the war," but Sneh, who in a decades-long career served as a military governor of the West Bank, commanded an elite combat unit, and took part in the famed Entebbe raid, also has both an intimate knowledge of the Palestinians and a combat commander's credibility with the IDF that Peretz sorely lacks. Your meeting with Peretz provides an opportunity to express appreciation for his and Sneh's efforts and to encourage them in their struggle to bring recalcitrant elements in the IDF to heel. The more progress we can achieve with them on AMA implementation now, the easier it will be to achieve meaningful results with both parties in the coming year.