Soon after the U.S. and other major powers entered negotiations last year to curtail Iran’s nuclear program, senior White House officials learned Israel was spying on the closed-door talks.
Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, and President Barack Obama shown during a meeting at the White House in October.
The leaders disagree over the negotiations with Iran. Photo: Getty Photo: Reuters
The spying operation was part of a broader campaign by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government to penetrate the negotiations and then help build a case against the emerging terms of the deal, current and former U.S. officials said.
In addition to eavesdropping, Israel acquired information from confidential U.S. briefings, informants and diplomatic contacts in Europe, the officials said.
The espionage didn’t upset the White House as much as Israel’s sharing of inside information with U.S. lawmakers and others to drain support from a high-stakes deal intended to limit Iran’s nuclear program, current and former officials said.
“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,” said a senior U.S. official briefed on the matter.
The U.S. and Israel, longtime allies who routinely swap information on security threats, sometimes operate behind the scenes like spy-versus-spy rivals. The White House has largely tolerated Israeli snooping on U.S. policy makers—a posture Israel takes when the tables are turned.
The White House discovered the operation, in fact, when U.S. intelligence agencies spying on Israel intercepted communications among Israeli officials that carried details the U.S. believed could have come only from access to the confidential talks, officials briefed on the matter said.
Israeli officials denied spying directly on U.S. negotiators and said they received their information through other means, including close surveillance of Iranian leaders receiving the latest U.S. and European offers. European officials, particularly the French, also have been more transparent with Israel about the closed-door discussions than the Americans, Israeli and U.S. officials said.
Mr. Netanyahu and Israeli Ambassador Ron Dermer early this year saw a rapidly closing window to increase pressure on Mr. Obama before a key deadline at the end of March, Israeli officials said.
Using levers of political influence unique to Israel, Messrs. Netanyahu and Dermer calculated that a lobbying campaign in Congress before an announcement was made would improve the chances of killing or reshaping any deal. They knew the intervention would damage relations with the White House, Israeli officials said, but decided that was an acceptable cost.
The campaign may not have worked as well as hoped, Israeli officials now say, because it ended up alienating many congressional Democrats whose support Israel was counting on to block a deal.
Obama administration officials, departing from their usual description of the unbreakable bond between the U.S. and Israel, have voiced sharp criticism of Messrs. Netanyahu and Dermer to describe how the relationship has changed.
“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.”
This account of the Israeli campaign is based on interviews with more than a dozen current and former U.S. and Israeli diplomats, intelligence officials, policy makers and lawmakers.
Distrust between Mr. Netanyahu and Mr. Obama had been growing for years but worsened when Mr. Obama launched secret talks with Iran in 2012. The president didn’t tell Mr. Netanyahu because of concerns about leaks, helping set the stage for the current standoff, according to current and former U.S. and Israeli officials.
U.S. officials said Israel has long topped the list of countries that aggressively spy on the U.S., along with China, Russia and France. The U.S. expends more counterintelligence resources fending off Israeli spy operations than any other close ally, U.S. officials said.
A senior official in the prime minister’s office said Monday: “These allegations are utterly false. The state of Israel does not conduct espionage against the United States or Israel’s other allies. 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.”
Current and former Israeli officials said their intelligence agencies scaled back their targeting of U.S. officials after the jailing nearly 30 years ago of American Jonathan Pollard for passing secrets to Israel.
While U.S. officials may not be direct targets, current and former officials said, Israeli intelligence agencies sweep up communications between U.S. officials and parties targeted by the Israelis, including Iran.
Americans shouldn’t be surprised, said a person familiar with the Israeli practice, since U.S. intelligence agencies helped the Israelis build a system to listen in on high-level Iranian communications.
As secret talks with Iran progressed into 2013, U.S. intelligence agencies monitored Israel’s communications to see if the country knew of the negotiations. Mr. Obama didn’t tell Mr. Netanyahu until September 2013.
Israeli officials, who said they had already learned about the talks through their own channels, told their U.S. counterparts they were upset about being excluded. “ ‘Did the administration really believe we wouldn’t find out?’ ” Israeli officials said, according to a former U.S. official.
The episode cemented Mr. Netanyahu’s concern that Mr. Obama was bent on clinching a deal with Iran whether or not it served Israel’s best interests, Israeli officials said. Obama administration officials said the president was committed to preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons.
Mr. Dermer started lobbying U.S. lawmakers just before the U.S. and other powers signed an interim agreement with Iran in November 2013. Mr. Netanyahu and Mr. Dermer went to Congress after seeing they had little influence on the White House.
Before the interim deal was made public, Mr. Dermer gave lawmakers Israel’s analysis: The U.S. offer would dramatically undermine economic sanctions on Iran, according to congressional officials who took part.
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Disclaimer: This article was not written by Lorra B.