On some level, the reports that Israel spied on Iran-U.S. nuclear talks don't come as a shock. Just last year, German newsmagazine Der Spiegel reported that Israel had eavesdropped on Secretary of State John Kerry during Middle East peace talks. Jonathan Pollard, who was arrested in November 1985 after passing secret documents to Israel while working as a civilian analyst for the U.S. Navy, has become a cause celebre among some Israelis.
In fact, as we learned after the 2013 revelation that the NSA was tracking German Chancellor Angela Merkel's phone, allies spy on one another all the time. "I have a word of advice for American allies outraged by alleged NSA spying on their leaders," conservative analyst Max Boot wrote in the New York Post after that scandal broke. "Grow up."
Germany was angered by the NSA revelations, but it was soon embarrassed by reports that it was itself spying on an ally — in this case, Turkey — and had even “inadvertently” intercepted calls made by Kerry and Hillary Clinton. As Bernard Kouchner, a former French foreign minister, put it, the problem wasn't so much that nations spied on their allies — it was that the United States was better at it. “Let’s be honest, we eavesdrop, too," Kouchner told a French radio station. "But we don’t have the same means as the United States, which makes us jealous.”
As such, it is tempting to look at these new reports and come back with simple schadenfreude: It seems as if the United States is just getting a taste of its own medicine. But there is something distinct about the new allegations. It's not just that Israel was allegedly spying on the U.S. talks with Iran. According to reports, it was then using the information gleamed from it to undermine U.S. foreign policy.
According to Adam Entous of the Wall Street Journal, Israel's surveillance of closed-door talks between Washington and Tehran was used to gather information that was then passed on to U.S. lawmakers. This detail is apparently what is causing the most anger within the White House. “It is one thing for the U.S. and Israel to spy on each other," one unnamed U.S. official told the Journal. "It is another thing for Israel to steal U.S. secrets and play them back to U.S. legislators to undermine U.S. diplomacy."
Israel has denied the reports, though few people buy it. "I'd be more surprised if Israel did NOT spy on the Iran nuclear negotiations," Steven A. Cook, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, tweeted on Tuesday. And given the state of relations between the White House and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the idea that they passed on details to lawmakers seems distinctly plausible.
Netanyahu, who was reelected as Israel's leader last week, caused a furor when he accepted Speaker John A. Boehner’s invitation to address Congress this month. Although the Israeli prime minister denied reports that he would risk bipartisan U.S. support for Israel, many observers saw the speech as a direct appeal to President Obama's Republican rivals — and an attempt to undermine a sitting U.S. president. "The planned speech," Chuck Freilich, a former deputy head of Israel's National Security Council, wrote, is "essentially an attempt to mobilize Congress against the administration."
Despite objections, Netanyahu went ahead with the speech. And then, to the surprise of many analysts, he was reelected last week. The Obama administration offered him a lukewarm note of congratulation at best, noting that Netanyahu's Likud Party had won a "plurality" of seats. Later, Obama said that the United States was reassessing its relationship with Israel after controversial comments made by the Israeli incumbent in the last few days before the election.
The impression given by all this is of a uniquely duplicitous Israeli administration. And if the latest reports are true, they seem remarkable: It's hard to think of another instance when a nation spied on an ally and then shared information with the ally's domestic rivals. But then again, espionage is by its nature secret. And it's worth remembering that the only way these new reports came to light was by an ally spying on its ally – Entous reports that officials told him that "U.S. intelligence agencies spying on Israel intercepted communications among Israeli officials" featuring details that could have come only from confidential talks.