Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon adamantly denied a US media report on Tuesday alleging Israel spied on America’s nuclear talks with Iran, and said someone apparently had an interest in stoking conflict between Jerusalem and Washington.
The report in The Wall Street Journal, based in part on information from anonymous senior US officials, comes a week after comments Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made during the final days of his reelection campaign ignited a furious response from Washington, including threats to “reassess” its Middle East policy.
The report stated that not only has Israel spied on the negotiations but, according to a senior US official, the White House believes Netanyahu has used covertly collected information to sway US congressmen against a negotiated deal with Iran over its nuclear program.
“It is one thing for the US and Israel to spy on each other,” the unnamed official told the Journal
. “It is another thing for Israel to steal US secrets and play them back to US legislators to undermine US diplomacy.”
Meanwhile, US President Barack Obama dismissed claims that a growing rift between himself and Netanyahu was personal.
“There’s a tendency I think in the reporting here to frame this somehow as a personal issue between myself and Prime Minister Netanyahu,” Obama told reporters on Tuesday. “When you frame it in those terms, the notion is, well, if we all just get along and everybody cools down, then somehow the problem goes away.”
Obama said he had a “business- like relationship” with the prime minister. “I talk to him all the time,” he said.
“So the issue is not a matter of relations between leaders. The issue is a very clear, substantive challenge.
“We believe that two states is the best path forward for Israel’s security, for Palestinian aspirations and for regional stability,” he continued. “That’s our view and that continues to be our view, and Prime Minister Netanyahu has a different approach.”
Obama administration officials have increased their rhetoric in recent days, with the president’s chief of staff saying that Israel can’t “militarily control” another people “indefinitely.”
“This can’t be reduced to a matter of somehow let’s all, you know, hold hands and sing ‘kum-ba-yah,’” the US president said. “This is a matter of figuring out how to we get through a real knotty policy difference that has great consequences for both countries and for the region.”
According to the Journal
, White House officials learned of Israel’s alleged snooping soon after negotiations first began more than a year ago. The White House discovered the alleged Israeli spying when US intelligence agencies – which themselves were spying on Israel – discovered details in intercepted communication the US believed could only have come from access to confidential talks, the report said.
In February, as Washington prepared for the controversial speech by the prime minister to a joint meeting of Congress, State Department officials said they had ceased briefing Israel on classified intelligence regarding the nuclear negotiations and accused the premier of leaking “selective information” from the talks.
“I can tell you, as someone who knows the intelligence community from very up close for 20 years, since I was head of Military Intelligence in 1995, that there is no way, was no way, that Israel would spy on the Americans,” Ya’alon said during a visit to Nesher, near Haifa.
“No Israeli intelligence organization spies on the Americans,” he said. “Someone apparently has an interest in stoking conflict and introducing a bad spirit into our strategic, security and intelligence ties with the US.”
Following the report, Ya’alon said he checked to see whether any complaint was received by the intelligence community.
“We didn’t receive any complaint,” he said.
Ya’alon added that a ban on spying on the US has been in place and enforced by all governments he has known for two decades, and that this certainly remains the case.
He acknowledged that at times there are disagreements between Israel and the US, and sometimes the countries see things differently, but “there are channels to smooth over differences... I hope we get past this as soon as possible and get back to the same relations that are mostly discreet and covert. I hope this continues and that it is not harmed in any way.”
Intelligence Minister Yuval Steinitz said, in reaction to the report, that for decades there has been a sweeping directive not to spy on the US, which is believed to date back some 30 years to the arrest in Washington of Jonathan Pollard.
Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman also roundly dismissed the report.
In an interview with Army Radio, Liberman said, “The report is not correct and not accurate. Clearly we have good intelligence services and interests, but we are not involved in spying against the US.”
A senior official in the Prime Minister’s Office said the allegations were “utterly false,” adding that they were “intended to undermine the strong ties between the United States and Israel and the security and intelligence relationship we share.”
Meanwhile, House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), whose invitation to Netanyahu to address Congress on Iran infuriated the White House, said he was “shocked” and “baffled” by the suggestion that Israel’s alleged spying on the nuclear talks collected information that was used to lobby him and his colleagues.
“I’m not sure what the information was, but I’m baffled by it,” Boehner told reporters on Capitol Hill on Tuesday. “No information [was] revealed to me whatsoever.”
Boehner is scheduled to visit Israel at the end of the month.