Claims that Israeli diplomats were summoned by the FBI dozens of times in the decade since 9/11 and told to stop spying on the US are “utterly without foundation,” former ambassador to the US Michael Oren, who served in Washington from July 2009 to September 2013.
Oren told The Jerusalem Post on Sunday that Israel’s intelligence relationship with the United States was unparalleled, and that claims of Israelis being scolded by the FBI were baseless.
Oren was responding to the second article in a week that appeared on the Newsweek magazine website Thursday alleging rampant Israeli spying on the US.
According to the report, “Beginning in the mid-1990s, well after Israel promised to stop spying in the US in the wake of the Pollard affair, the FBI regularly felt compelled to summon Israeli diplomats in DC for a scolding, two former top counterintelligence officials told ‘Newsweek.’ During the decade following 9/11, one said, the Israelis were summoned ‘dozens’ of times and told to ‘cut the shit,’ as one, a former top FBI official, put it. But as an ‘ally,’ the Israelis almost always got off with only a warning.”
Oren, a historian of the US-Israel relationship, said that when it has gone through periods of tension in the past, stories frequently appear in the US media citing anonymous sources leveling stinging criticism of Israel.
The ambassador, who dismissed the Newsweek stories as groundless, said the important questions to ask are about what the motivation is behind them, and why “somebody is making an effort to leak this stuff and give it prominence.”
Without saying who he thinks is behind the stories, Oren speculated that it could be elements inside the security establishment opposed to granting Israelis visa waivers; it could be people within the intelligence services acting to preempt an early release of Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard; or it may be individuals who hold Israel responsible for the failure of the peace talks seeking retribution.
He defended the decision by senior Israeli officials, such as Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman and Intelligence Minister Yuval Steinitz, to strongly deny the allegations, saying that these types of claims cannot go without a response, even at the risk of giving the story more traction.
In diplomacy, he said, even a “no comment” is a comment.
Oren said the main reason to respond was to reassure the Israeli public that the government was not doing anything that could harm the security relationship with the US, a relationship they understand is critical.
He said it was important to reassure them that there is no spying on the US, and that these stories are “written and spun” for different reasons.
He said that he did not foresee any public diplomacy damage as a result of these stories, because while they are front page news in Israel, their resonance in the US was much, much less.
The same, he said, is not true of the “price-tag” attacks.
Not only are they causing civil and moral damage, they are also causing diplomatic damage, which is “all the more reason to stamp them out,” he said.
As an example of the diplomatic damage, he pointed to the US State Department’s annual country reports on terrorism issued last week in which the attacks were mentioned.
At the same time, Oren completely rejected Amos Oz’s comparison of the price-tag culprits and the “hilltop youth” to “Hebrew neo-Nazis.”
“No one should compare Nazis who killed 6 million Jews to the despicable deeds of Jewish racists,” he said.
Rather, he said, a more apt comparison to the vandalism – where anti-Arab inscriptions such as “Arabs out” are often scrawled on mosques and homes – is the graffiti he remembers scrawled on the walls on his New Jersey home growing up: “Jews out.”
Asked about US Middle East envoy Martin Indyk’s speech last week in which he blamed both Israel and the Palestinians for the impasse in the peace talks, singling out for special blame the announcement of settlement construction, Oren said that “no one has a monopoly on mistake making.”
“A more magnanimous and accurate picture” in apportioning blame would be for the US to take some responsibility as well, he said.
He said that one of the “biggest obstacles” in the diplomatic process has been the failure by the US administration to distinguish between the long established Jewish neighborhoods in Jerusalem beyond the Green Line – which is a consensus issue among Israelis – “and the outlying settlements in the West Bank.”