Jerusalem responded largely with a yawn to a Wall Street Journal report Tuesday that the US eavesdropped on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, with current and past officials saying it is an open secret that Washington listens in on high-level conversations in key capitals around the world.
Officially, however, the Prime Minister’s Office had no comment on the report.
The article, which said Netanyahu “topped the list” of US allies whom the White House decided to keep under “close watch,” also revealed that – contrary to the widespread perception – Israeli Ambassador to the US Ron Dermer did not “concoct” the plan to have Netanyahu address a joint session of Congress last March.
“I was not knocked off my chair” by the Wall Street Journal report, National Infrastructure, Energy and Water Minister Yuval Steinitz told Israel Radio. Steinitz, who held the intelligence minister portfolio in the last government and played a key role in trying to thwart the Iranian nuclear deal, said that one of his basic premises was that the US and other friendly countries were trying to collect intelligence on Israel.
Former National Security Council head Yaakov Amidror, now a senior fellow at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, told Army Radio that “the United States listens to everybody, therefore we don’t have to get excited about this. The US does not say this in public, but everyone knows it, and everyone knows that everyone knows.”
The continued surveillance of communications in the Prime Minister’s Office, according to the report, came about even though US President Barack Obama announced two years ago – following the revelations of former National Security Agency (NSA) contractor Edward Snowden – that the US would curtail its eavesdropping on friendly countries.
“The National Security Agency’s targeting of Israeli leaders and officials also swept up the contents of some of their private conversations with US lawmakers and American-Jewish groups,” the report said, raising fears that the executive branch would be accused of spying on Congress.
According to the report, the eavesdropping on the premier revealed to the White House how Netanyahu and his advisers “leaked details of the US-Iran negotiations – learned through Israeli spying operations – to undermine the talks; coordinated talking points with Jewish-American groups against the deal; and asked undecided lawmakers what it would take to win their votes.”
The report said the intelligence agencies kept their eavesdropping operations on Israel because the White House wanted to know whether Israel had learned of secret negotiations it was conducting with Iran. According to the report, “given the appetite for information about Mr. Netanyahu’s intentions during the US-Iran negotiations, the NSA tried to send updates to US policy makers quickly, often in less than six hours after a notable communication was intercepted.”
Amidror jokingly said he was insulted when a list of whom the White House was listening in on a few years ago did not include Israel.
The US, he said, “acts like a world power and listens to everyone. At least those who are important, those who are not important they don’t listen to. If there is a country without value or influence some place, no one will waste time on them.”
Amidror said Obama understood Israel could impact the Iran debate, and as a result wanted know all the details of how it planned to do so. “We don’t have to be surprised by this, “ he said, “that is the way the world works.”
Amidror stressed, however, that since Israel committed itself following the Jonathan Pollard case not to spy on the US, it neither spies in the US or against the US abroad.
From the very beginning of talks over Iran’s nuclear program, however, Israel and the US have reportedly been gathering intelligence on one another. Jerusalem discovered a secret back channel between the US and Iran not through defense cooperation, but by monitoring the comings and goings of unmarked US government planes in Muscat. Israel was also accused of spying on the Beau Rivage Palace in Lausanne, Switzerland, as the negotiations toward a framework agreement were concluding in March of this year.
According to the Wall Street Journal report, on January 8, John Boehner, then the Republican house speaker, and incoming Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell agreed to invite Netanyahu to deliver a speech to a joint session of Congress.
A day later, Boehner called Dermer to get Netanyahu’s agreement.
Despite the fact that the NSA was spying on Israeli communications, the report noted that administration officials said they were caught off guard when Boehner announced the invitation some two weeks later.
This report makes it clear, however, that the initiative for the speech was Boehner and McConnell’s, not a result of Dermer’s manipulation, as many have claimed.
Few members of Congress or American-Jewish groups have thus far responded to the Wall Street Journal report.
A senior White House official told The Jerusalem Post the administration does not conduct any foreign intelligence surveillance activities “unless there is a specific and validated national security purpose.”
“This applies to ordinary citizens and world leaders alike,” the official said, adding: “Our support for Israel was an important element in deterring Iran from ever seeking a nuclear weapon, and remains a critical part of our efforts to push back against Iran’s destabilizing actions in the region.”
The official noted the president’s commitment to Israel’s qualitative military edge over other powers in the region. Maintaining Israel’s QME is central to negotiations currently under way over a new 10-year aid package to Israel, to be settled over the course of the next year.Michael Wilner contributed to this report from Washington.