In the aftermath of revelations of the US National Security Agency (NSA) spying
on Israeli prime ministers, why aren’t Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and his
predecessors Ehud Olmert and Ehud Barak calling for heads to roll and a complete
overhaul in US-Israel relations?
That was how German Chancellor Angela Merkel,
Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto and many other heads of state reacted when
they learned that the NSA had spied on them.
True, there has not been
complete quiet on the Israeli side. Various cabinet ministers and Knesset
members have expressed disdain and anger over the issue.
But the silence
from Netanyahu, the Foreign Ministry and the Defense Ministry has been
In fact, the only statement that the prime minister has made
was to give vague reassurances about regular Israeli efforts to release Jonathan
Pollard from US custody, reacting to the spin-off story about how these
revelations should impact his fate.
It seems that, publicly, Netanyahu is
worried more about his image in fighting for Pollard than he is about himself
and other Israeli heads of state being spied on. Olmert commented some to the
media, but significantly played down the spying as having been of
Also, he does not seem concerned by the premise
that the US spied on him.
Barak has said nothing at all, and according to
Yediot Aharonot, the US not only spied on him electronically, but also snooped
on his home from a nearby high-rise.
Why Israel is reacting so
differently than other countries, aside from possibly having been less naïve and
having expected US spying, could relate to reports from a few months ago that
Israel has sometimes joined the US in electronic spying on others and is on the
receiving end of huge volumes of the controversial collected US
The Israel as “aggressor” narrative cites an October Le
Monde report that produced a document in which NSA officials briefed French
intelligence that neither they nor four other close allies had breached the
Élysée’s communications, but hinted Israel might have been
Next, this narrative cites a five-page document, titled
“Memorandum of Understanding between the NSA and its Israeli counterpart (the
ISNU),” disclosed by The Guardian in September, which indicated that the US
sends “unminimized” communications to Israel, including that of US
“Unminimized” means ignoring the various safeguards the NSA
usually follows when analyzing these communications, including a process of
filtering out all extraneous information not relevant to national security and
observing certain legal boundaries.
The document formally obligates
Israel to observe the same boundaries, but does not cite any serious enforcement
mechanism to ensure compliance and clearly proclaims that it is not “legally
binding” under “international law.”
Technically, this five-page document
has nothing to do with Israel spying along with the US.
But a byproduct
of the agreement could be an unofficial partnership in which the US and Israel
jointly set up listening capabilities (since Israel has massive access to
communications collected by the US), with Israel doing the review on the US’s
behalf where US law is constraining or so that the US has plausible deniability
if the spying is made public.
There is also the billions of dollars in
aid and powerful backing the US gives Israel on a range of issues to
So while the US spying on Israeli prime ministers is at the
very least unseemly, making too big a public stink (as opposed to private), when
the price could be losing a massive and crucial intelligence source, is likely
not in the cards.