Israel spies on everyone - it's what they do

Israel spies on everyone - it's what they do
Analysis: The timing of the revelation Israel spied on the US-Iran nuclear talks - and to whom the information was passed - is more noteworthy than the actual act.
3 min read
24 March, 2015
Convicted spy Jonathan Pollard is a cause celebre in Israel [AFP]
Reports that Israel has been spying on the Iran-US negotiations hardly come as a surprise. Israel's government under Binyamin Netanyahu has been vociferously opposed to any reasonable nuclear deal between Iran and world powers, describing it as an "existential threat".

Moreover, Israel has a track record of spying on friends and foes alike - even the US, its staunchest ally and guarantor.

Jonathan Pollard is currently serving a lifetime sentence in the US for spying for Israel in the 1980s. His release is a perennial political cause in Israel.

In the 1960s, Israel spied on the US nuclear weapons programme. In the 1980s, a Nato contractor, Richard Kelly Smyth, was arrested for passing nuclear triggers to Israel.

In the 1990s, a spy ring alleged to have operated out of the pro-Israel Anti-Defamation League in California was busted, but evaded prosecution due to political pressure.

Therefore, the timing of the latest revelation of Israeli spying - and to whom the information was subsequently passed - is perhaps more noteworthy than the actual act.

Indeed, the spying did not seem to bother the administration officials who passed the information to the Wall Street Journal. Rather, it is the suggestion that the information was then subsequently shared with Obama's domestic political opponents in the US Congress.

That would be a direct interference in domestic US politics, interference that is generally seen as anathema in a country where political disputes are meant to end at the water's edge. It is the sort of interference that the US administration complained loudly about when Netanyahu was invited to speak earlier this month to the US Congress without the administration's prior knowledge or consent.
     Direct interference in domestic US politics... is generally seen as anathema in a country where political disputes are meant to end at the water's edge.

To leak a spying allegation – Israel has strongly denied the claim – cannot be separated from the domestic US context. Republicans, which control both houses of Congress – have set themselves strongly against any deal with Iran, which the Democrat administration appears hell-bent on securing.

Draping themselves in the Stars and Stripes at any and all opportunity, however, leaves the Republicans vulnerable to suggestions that their actions are 'un-American'. Colluding with a foreign state accused of spying on the US government couldn't be more damaging, even if it is Israel, which the US's political narrative has often miscast as a domestic issue.

And levelling spying charges against Israel now, suggests the White House is, in part, trying to push Republicans onto the defensive ahead of any deal with Iran, due at the end of this month.

That is not to say that there aren't unprecedented tensions in the US-Israel relationship. Newly re-elected Netanyahu has found himself backtracking on a number of campaign pledges before he has even begun forming a coalition.

He has apologised to Israel's Palestinian citizens. He will have to pull back from his pre-election assertion that there will be no Palestinian state under his watch, the very foundation of US diplomatic efforts over the past 20 years on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

But these tensions can be overblown. The US-Israel relationship is a domestic US issue in many ways, with pro-Israel lobbying groups exerting outsize influence over US policy-making.

The relationship can, and will, survive two years of tensions between an outgoing president and an Israeli prime minister whose credibility is shot in Washington outside the right-wing. After all, it survived Pollard, Smyth, ADL and others in the past.

Still Israel is overplaying its hand. US spies and the military are growing increasingly weary of Israeli meddling, with a number voicing their frustrations in recent years. And these will ultimately hold sway in Washington, if Israel continues to work at cross-purposes with its super-power ally.