From the day the first batch of WikiLeaks appeared in the international press, the Israeli government began crowing. Seizing on documents that showed some Arab leaders seeking a more aggressive line against Iran, the Israeli spin machine went into action.
The Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, boasted that "our region has been hostage to a narrative that is the result of 60 years of propaganda, which paints Israel as the greatest threat." He claimed that Iran had in fact eclipsed the Palestinian issue as the number one concern of the Arab world. Another prominent Israeli official gloated that "Iran was now 10 times more important than Palestine" and that it was now time to shelve the "peace effort" and focus attention on Iran.
My first reaction was "how silly, yet predictable". My second, "how dangerous".
The Israelis and their supporters in the US have been announcing the end of the Palestinian cause for decades. In the 1980s, an article that appeared in a prestigious US quarterly journal claimed that with the Palestine Liberation Organisation defeated in Lebanon and Arab countries focused on the Iran-Iraq war, the Palestinian issue was as good as dead in the Arab world. The article was written a month before the outbreak of the first intifada but because of the lag in publication, the journal did not hit the streets until a month after the revolt began. So much for that analysis.
Equally flawed assessments about the death of the Palestinian cause were made in the early 1990s as an international coalition was being mobilised to liberate Kuwait from Saddam Hussein's occupation and again after September 11. The Israeli occupation of the West Bank was strengthened and the former Palestinian president Yasser Arafat besieged in Ramallah. And here today, again there is the same call to ignore Palestine.
In each case, these predictions were wrong, born more of a kind of Israeli wish-fulfilment rather than a clear and thoughtful assessment of political realities in the Arab world. The Israelis' desire to grasp at straws to wish away Palestine and Jerusalem and the importance of these issues to Arabs is par for the course. But it is also dangerous and short-sighted.
It is true that in the 1980s the Arab world was consumed by the Iran-Iraq war. And it is true that the occupation of Kuwait caused deep concerns about the aggressive ambitions of the Iraqi leader. There was also good reason for Arabs to be deeply troubled by the threat of al Qa'eda and the reactions of the Bush administration to the deadly attack on the US homeland. Today there is growing concern about the aggressive and meddlesome behaviour of Iran in the Gulf and beyond.
But to use these issues to nullify concerns about the plight of the Palestinians or the fate of Jerusalem is sheer fantasy. As polling has consistently demonstrated, Palestine is not merely an issue, it is an existential concern that not only unites Arabs, but defines our sense of common history and their deepest feelings of betrayal and vulnerability in the face of western machinations. In a real sense, the plight of Palestinians is to Arabs what the Holocaust is to Jews worldwide. To ignore this reality is to invite disaster.
The most recent denial is based on a straw man, constructed out of bits of WikiLeaks data that in reality are little more than hearsay and gossip: memoranda of conversations reported without context or analysis. As such, they are not the stuff out of which policy or even a solid argument can be built.
One prominent former US official made this point convincingly after being interviewed on a major news network. He chided his interviewer who had been pressing him to evaluate some of the more controversial WikiLeaks data, asking whether the interviewer would want the notes of the off-the-cuff conversations that had taken place before and after the show to be revealed. Would those notes fairly represent the views of the network, the former official asked.
The point is that these leaked documents do not represent official policy or even the guiding star of that policy. Of course, they provide an interesting distraction but not much more.
It is true that Arab leaders are deeply troubled by Iran's hegemonic ambitions and its meddling in Iraq, the Gulf states, Lebanon and the occupied Palestinian territories. But to move to the assumption that the Palestinian issue has been eclipsed or that it no longer matters to these Arab leaders and their people is an unwarranted assumption built on a flimsy foundation.
James Zogby is the president of the Arab American Institute