Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s reasons for breaking protocol last month to tell the U.S. Congress he’s passionately opposed to a nuclear deal with Iran were already fairly complex, and now The Wall Street Journal has laid out the spy-versus-spy antics going on behind the scenes. The paper reports that shortly after the U.S. and five other world powers began negotiations to curb Iran’s nuclear program last year, the White House learned that Israel was spying on the talks.
U.S. officials didn’t mind a little espionage between friends (the two allies actually spy on each other all the time), but they did have a problem with Israel sharing the information they gleaned with U.S. lawmakers in an attempt to erode support for the deal. “It is one thing for the U.S. and Israel to spy on each other. It is another thing for Israel to steal U.S. secrets and play them back to U.S. legislators to undermine U.S. diplomacy,” explained a senior U.S. official.
Since President Obama’s relationship with Netanyahu was already testy, he didn’t tip him off when he began the secret talks with Iran in 2012. Through their own spying, U.S. intelligence agencies determined that Israeli officials had confidential information that could only be obtained from eavesdropping on the talks, or obtaining confidential U.S. briefings.
Israeli officials denied that they learned about the negotiations from spying directly on U.S. negotiators. A senior official in Netanyahu’s office insisted Israel does not spy on its allies and claimed the “false allegations are clearly intended to undermine the strong ties between the United States and Israel and the security and intelligence relationship we share.” But Israeli officials told the U.S. that regardless of how they learned of the talks, they were upset they hadn’t been kept in the loop.
This year, Israel stepped up its lobbying efforts ahead of the final deadlines in March and June. As House speaker John Boehner announced that Netanyahu would address a joint session of Congress, Dermer and other Israeli officials were urging Democratic lawmakers to oppose the deal. (Republicans didn’t need much convincing.) A spokesman for the Israel embassy in Washington said Dermer “consistently briefed both Republican and Democrats, senators and congressmen, on Israel’s concerns regarding the Iran negotiations for over a year,” but there was no special last-ditch campaign.
So far it looks like the effort backfired. Israel reportedly knew its relationship with the White House would take a hit, but didn’t anticipate the backlash from congressional Democrats. “People feel personally sold out,” a senior administration official said. “That’s where the Israelis really better be careful because a lot of these people will not only be around for this administration but possibly the next one as well.” Hmmm, that threat sounds so familiar.