Analysis: Why has Netanyahu been silent over NSA spying on Israel?

While US spying on Israeli prime ministers is at the very least unseemly, making too big a public stink is likely not in the cards.

December 23, 2013 01:22
3 minute read.
US President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyu

US President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Binyamin Netany. (photo credit: REUTERS/Jason Reed)


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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 deafening.

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 inconsequential value.

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 intelligence.

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 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 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 consider.

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.

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