Spy lessons

Israel US flags (photo credit: REUTERS)
Israel US flags
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Should we get excited about a report this week in The Wall Street Journal that revealed the US had eavesdropped on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu? It is, after all, discomfiting to see the US, Israel’s closest and most important ally, spying on the Jewish state’s leader.
One would think that relations between the countries are good enough to allow for open communications and the sharing of the most intimate and classified information.
Ultimately, the two countries share the same goals and values. It is impossible to imagine a scenario in which the two countries could possibly become enemies. If at some time in the future they did become enemies, it would mean that one or both countries had radically changed.
One of the reasons supporters of Jonathan Pollard find it so difficult to accept or understand the stiff prison sentence and the intransigence of consecutive US presidents regarding the possibility of a pardon is the belief that, in the end, the US and Israel are close allies. Spying on an ally is quite different from spying on an enemy.
Also, spying on heads of state is quite different from the sort of spying on private individuals the US National Security Agency conducted in the wake of the 9/11 attacks.
Even sharp critics of US surveillance techniques, who can be hysterical about the need to protect individuals’ privacy even when doing so hampers law enforcement bodies’ attempts to stop terrorist attacks like the ones in Paris and San Bernardino, make such distinctions.
Journalist Glenn Greenwald, one of the most vocal critics of US surveillance tactics, wrote, for instance, that while the US’s surveillance of “the private conversations of officials of allied democracies is certainly worth debating... those revelations... are less significant than the NSA’s warrantless mass surveillance of whole populations,” since “countries have spied on heads of state for centuries, including allies.”
This might explain the cavalier response in Jerusalem to the Journal story published on Tuesday that revealed the US’s eavesdropping on Netanyahu.
As The Jerusalem Post’s senior diplomatic correspondent Herb Keinon noted in a news piece on Thursday, top officials in Jerusalem reacted “with a yawn” to Journal’s report.
“I was not knocked off my chair,” National Infrastructure, Energy and Water Minister Yuval Steinitz told Israel Radio in response to the revelations.
Former National Security Council head Yaakov Amidror, now a senior fellow at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, told Army Radio that “the US 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.”
Amidror’s and Steinitz’s reactions probably reflect the sentiments of the Prime Minister’s Office, though no official response has been given.
Admittedly, not all countries have reacted with such equanimity to US surveillance, including countries considered strong American allies. In December 2013, when it emerged that the US had been bugging the cellphone of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Merkel was livid.
In an angry exchange with President Barack Obama, Merkel compared the snooping practices of the US with those of the Stasi, the all-powerful secret police of the communist dictatorship in East Germany, where she grew up.
What is troubling about the revelations regarding US eavesdropping on Netanyahu, however, is the fact that Obama explicitly promised in January 2014, shortly after the Merkel imbroglio, to stop snooping on the leaders of close US friends and allies.
“The leaders of our close friends and allies deserve to know that if I want to learn what they think about an issue, I will pick up the phone and call them, rather than turning to surveillance,” he said.
Does this mean that Obama does not consider Israel a close friend or ally? Or does it mean that the US president’s promises are sometimes not backed up with actions? Either way, the Journal story should be a cause for concern.
As we start 2016, it behooves Obama to do for Israel what he has done for agents of Cuba, Russia and China, as well as for numerous Guantanamo prisoners, when he signed to release them so that they could go home to their respective countries.
In this light, Israel’s request for an ill, harshly punished Israeli agent named Jonathan Pollard to be sent home after 30 years in US jails does not seem too much to ask.