Amid reports that the US National Security Agency has been eavesdropping on the
personal conversations of as many as 35 world leaders, including major allies
like Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel, all sorts of perspectives are emerging
about Israel’s possible role in the situation.
Based on the latest
revelations from former NSA agent Edward Snowden’s files, most of the world has
been delving into the questions of did US President Barack Obama know about the
full extent of the program or not and how much of it has he halted.
Israel-focused commentary has both emphasized Israel’s role as a “victim” of
American spying, but as the cautious ally who avoids US surveillance better than
others; and as the “aggressor” who allegedly infiltrated the communications of
France’s Élysée Palace.
Those who say that Israel is one of the NSA’s
many victims take a different tone though than the Europeans.
France and others are demanding that the US sign a new non-spying pact,
threatening otherwise to limit counterterror cooperation.
commentators and some former intelligence officers are expressing puzzlement
that the Europeans are surprised.
According to this version of events,
all allies spy on each other all the time, and Israelis are particularly
cautious about using secure lines as opposed to cellphones, not because they are
most afraid of Iranian spies, but to avoid the NSA listening in.
account, Israel knows it is a victim, lives with it as “part of the game” in
intelligence, does all it can to limit NSA spying and believes the Europeans are
Then again there has not been a report yet about the NSA
listening in on Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s calls.
The Israel as
“aggressor” narrative cites a Le Monde report last week 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 then hinted to
the French that Israel could have been responsible.
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 citizens.
“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
Although the document formally obligates Israel to
observe the same safeguards, it does not cite any enforcement mechanism or
concrete “teeth” to ensure compliance (though Israel does have several
obligations to report certain issues to an NSA liaison). In fact, to keep the
agreement classified and keep it away from international judicial bodies, the
document specifically says it has no “legally enforceable rights,” it is not an
“international agreement” and it is not “legally binding” under “international
Technically, this five-page document has nothing to do with Israel
aggressively listening in on foreign leaders’ cellphones.
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 so that the US has plausible deniability.
commentators have not surprisingly latched onto the latest reports and other
claimed but unverified “reports” of Israeli spying on US telecommunications
companies, leaping to the conclusion that the reports are “proof” of an
undefined US-Israel-American Jews conspiracy, in which Israel and American Jews
“direct” US policy regarding Israel.
One angle that has not (yet) been
jumped on is if the current revelations of US spying on allies might have
implications for the fate of Jonathan Pollard.
So is Israel a victim or
In intelligence, the real answer, like for most countries, is
often to some extent both, and the complete answer, in spite of Snowden’s best
efforts, is likely never to see the light of day.