Gentlemen’s disagreement


Experts on intelligence matters in the United States are brushing off last week’s allegations from anonymous Obama administration sources who alleged that Israel spied on the Iran nuclear negotiations.

Michael Makovsky at the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs is among scholars who dismissed spying allegations first published in the Wall Street Journal last week, and accusations that Israel was feeding illicitly-obtained information to lawmakers on Capitol Hill as nothing more than normal behavior hyped by the White House to besmirch the Jewish state.

“It seems part of the administration’s campaign to attack Israel,” said Makovsky. “That maybe has subsided in recent days after there’s been some pushback by Democrats.”

The allegations, denied by Israeli officials, came in the final days leading up to the negotiations’ self-imposed March 31 deadline as Secretary of State John Kerry and representatives from five other nations attempted to finalize a deal preventing Iran from developing a nuclear weapons program.

According to the Journal, the administration provided high-level briefings on the talks to Israeli government officials, but abruptly canceled them over frustration with Israeli espionage activities.
“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,” a senior U.S. official told the newspaper.

Yet, leading lawmakers on Capitol Hill said that they were unaware of anyone receiving these alleged briefings from the Israelis, or that they were provided with any information about the negotiations that was not already public or not provided in closed-door briefings by U.S. officials.

“Frankly, I was a bit shocked because there was no information revealed to me whatsoever,” House Speaker John Boehner said at a press conference the morning the story broke. “I was shocked by the fact that there were reports in this press article that information was being passed on from the Israelis to members of Congress. I’m not aware of that at all.”

Although the United States and Israel maintain strong ties in defense and intelligence matters — often sharing information on security threats — the article alleged that the Israelis were active in obtaining information on the talks that was not publicly available other than through espionage, but did not mention which methods were used and who the Israelis monitored to obtain this information.

Beyond a “gentleman’s agreement” against spying on allies, Israel pledged to permanently suspend all espionage activities against the United States following the capture and incarceration of former U.S. Navy analyst Jonathan Pollard in the mid-1980s.

“It is a very well-known fact that at that time and since then, Israeli leaders have made this pledge quite clearly, repeatedly, that they were not going to do that again,” said Meir Elran, senior research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University. “I do not have any reasons to doubt that it is an ongoing policy and that Israel is keeping to it religiously.”

As expected, senior officials with Netanyahu’s office unequivocally denied the administration’s allegations.

That Israeli Ambassador to the United States Ron Dermer, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other Israeli officials have met, often publicly with American lawmakers on Capitol Hill and other branches of government, is no surprise, said Elran. That they would discuss Iranian nuclear ambitions, which Netanyahu has described as an existential threat to Israel, is no surprise either.

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