The Wall Street Journal has continued its series of scoops on espionage in the U.S.-Israel relationship: a new report, “U.S. Spy Net on Israel Snares Congress”, details how the decision to keep NSA technology trained on the office of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu led to intercepts of conversations with U.S. lawmakers and American Jewish groups. While the possibility of illegal spying on Congress will dominate public discussion of the story, the monitoring of Netanyahu and his staff, and the blunt way American officials reportedly discuss it in private, deserves attention, as it completely belies the public presentation of a relationship based on “shared values.”
The possibility of being caught listening in on lawmakers’ phone calls gave the Obama administration pause—one unnamed senior official called it an “Oh-shit moment” —and the story has caused some outcry. On Twitter, former Congressman Pete Hoekstra (R-Mich.), who chaired the House Intelligence Committee from 2004 to 2007, pronounced the report “very disturbing. Actually outrageous. Maybe unprecedented abuse of power.” The centrist journalist Ron Fournier admonished Democrats, “If you allow your guy to do this, no complaints when the next GOP POTUS runs amok with Obama precedent.” And Representative Ted Lieu, D-Calif., a voice of relative reason on national security affairs, tweeted, “If this is true, it is outrageous… it highlights again that the NSA is out of control.”
But the picture that emerges from the report is of an agency very much under the control of the White House, which made a calculated choice to keep tabs on its closest ally in the Middle East, even as other friendly leaders were said to be exempted from the NSA’s dragnet. In January 2014, following disclosures based on Edward Snowden’s leaks, Barack Obama announced a rollback of NSA surveillance, including an end to spying on heads of state of close American allies. (Underscoring the limitations of these purported reforms, the staffs of these leaders remained fair game, and no electronic implants were actually removed.) But “behind the scenes,” the Journal reports, “the White House decided to keep certain allies under close watch, current and former U.S. officials said. Topping the list was Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.”
So while the leaders of NATO stalwarts like France and Germany were deemed deserving of some nominal privacy, affording the same courtesy to the government of Israel was never even considered. “Going dark on Bibi?” one unnamed senior U.S. official reportedly said. “Of course we wouldn’t do that.”
It’s not news that the U.S. spies on Israel, or vice versa; the novel twist to this story is the separation-of-powers angle, which arises from the unusually close relations U.S. lawmakers have with Israel. (It turns out that you can’t wiretap Netanyahu’s office without listening in on senators and congresspersons.) The story’s immediate context is the nuclear negotiation with Iran, Obama’s highest foreign policy priority and the target of political sabotage by Netanyahu and elements of Congress: the White House reportedly “believed the intercepted information could be valuable to counter Mr. Netanyahu’s campaign” against the deal. But what’s most remarkable is the picture that emerges of the special relationship, an alliance with a dark heart of cynicism, which has implications far beyond the concluded talks with Tehran.
In private, the Journal reports, Obama justified continuing monitoring of Netanyahu “on the grounds that it served a ‘compelling national security purpose,’ according to current and former U.S. officials.” That purpose, as noted, was securing an Iranian nuclear agreement, but the general notion implicit in Obama’s claim—that Israel is capable of threatening U.S. national security—is the most volatile element of what Haaretz has called an “explosive report”. As an intensely ideological, highly militarized, and technologically sophisticated state, Israel poses incredible danger to the region: this destructive potential was evident as early as 1955, when the moderate Prime Minister Moshe Sharett wrote despairingly in his diary that Defense Minister Pinhas Lavon “has constantly preached in favor of acts of madness and taught the army leadership the diabolic lesson of how to set the Middle East on fire”. As Ariel Sharon was reputed to have said, “Arabs may have the oil, but we have the matches.”
Everyone understands this. It was just such an act of arson that the U.S. government feared in 2011 and 2012: “Convinced Mr. Netanyahu would attack Iran without warning the White House, U.S. spy agencies ramped up their surveillance, with the assent of Democratic and Republican lawmakers serving on congressional intelligence committees.” Such a strike would not only have wrecked the secret negotiations then underway with Iran, it could well have ignited a regional war, propelling events entirely outside of weakening U.S. control. Hence the very weaponization that makes Israel a valuable strategic asset also represents risk of the highest order—what if the weapon decides to fire on its own?—which is why we’d never go dark on Netanyahu. (The other friendly foreign leader who the Journal says was left off the so-called protected list is Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan, unreliable ally in the fight against Islamic State and possible detonator of World War III.)
By 2013, it was clear even to U.S. spies (who aren’t known for their perspicacity) that Netanyahu wouldn’t dare bomb Iran. Israel, for all its power, remains a fearful country, and like its patron it prefers to establish deterrence by making an example of defenseless enemies. Iran, with a population now nearing 80 million, withstood Saddam Hussein’s full fury back when Iraq was a serious military power, and has grown stronger since. It is in fact the lack of a conventional option against Iran that accounts for Israel’s strenuous opposition to Tehran’s nuclear program (as well as American willingness to cut a deal). But even if Netanyahu had privately accepted the inevitability of an agreement that his country’s security establishment actually favored, he had plenty of reason to oppose it in public: domestic politicking, for one, as well as gaining leverage over Obama in negotiations over a new 10-year military aid package. The Prime Minister’s anti-Iranian histrionics on Capitol Hill laid the groundwork for his eye-popping opening position in these talks—a request for $5 billion per annum —by portraying Israel as an aggrieved party, thrown to the nuclear wolves. It worked: in August The New York Times published a letter from Obama to Congressman Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) that implicitly accepted the principle of compensating Israel for the Iranian nuclear deal in the form of increased security assistance.
Maintaining the smooth and heavy flow of U.S. funds and weapons is Israel’s number-one national security priority; negotiations with Iran, from which Israel was necessarily excluded, gave Netanyahu an opportunity to pressure Obama on that score, using Congress and American Jewish groups as intermediaries. Once “Israel’s lobbying campaign against the deal went into full swing,” the Journal reports, “it didn’t take long for administration and intelligence officials to realize the NSA was sweeping up the content of conversations with lawmakers.” Israeli ambassador Ron Dermer is said to have been recorded “coaching unnamed U.S. organizations—which officials could tell from the context were Jewish-American groups—on lines of argument to use with lawmakers, and Israeli officials were reported pressing lawmakers to oppose the deal.” According to one intelligence source, “Israel’s pitch to undecided lawmakers often included such questions as: ‘How can we get your vote? What’s it going to take?’” Netanyahu may actually have been arrogant and deluded enough to believe that these smoke-filled-room tactics could stop the West’s march toward long-desired rapprochement with Iran: the NSA is said to have recorded the prime minister and his cronies predicting victory in Congress. Either way, there was no downside to fighting a president who had shown no will to confront Israel, whatever his private feelings.
In a conversation with Jeffrey Goldberg, the longtime Mideast diplomat and Israel lobbyist Dennis Ross defended Obama’s commitment to defending the Jewish state:
When he says in the letter to Nadler that Israeli security is sacrosanct, I heard him say that in the Oval Office. I would hear him say, “Look, whatever our differences are, we fence off security and we do what we need to do on security.” And I think that was completely genuine, and I certainly saw it the whole time I was in, and we’ve seen it in terms of responses. I cite the example of [U.S. Deputy National Security Advisor] Tony Blinken going in during the Gaza War in the summer of 2014, at a time when the White House is clearly not happy with civilian casualties in Gaza, and the Israelis need more money for Iron Dome, and it’s not even an issue, it’s not even a discussion. It’s just, “Yes, we do that.”
For Ross, the fact that the administration has in practice been indifferent to the death and suffering of innocent Palestinians, despite its occasional protests, is a positive sign. Washington obviously had no illusions about Operation Protective Edge: “It’s a hell of a pinpoint operation,” Secretary of State John Kerry remarked sarcastically in the middle of that orgy of destruction, unaware he was being recorded by Fox News. “It’s a hell of a pinpoint operation.” Confronted with the tape of these remarks by host Chris Wallace, Kerry segued seamlessly into the disingenuous official discourse of Israel’s right to defend itself: “I think it’s very very difficult in these situations, obviously very difficult, Chris, you have people who’ve come out of tunnels, you have a right to go in and take out those tunnels, we completely support that…” This automatic support for Israel, in the teeth of human feeling, is in Ross’s account a mark of moral conviction.
But Goldberg, savvier than Ross, sensed something disquieting in the diplomat’s description. When Ross recounted how the president would tell him, “You know, whoever is sitting in this office is going to stand by Israel… It’s not just me,” Goldberg objected: “Well is that kind of a fatalism? Like, I can’t do what I want to do?” Ross didn’t think so, but there’s little doubt that Goldberg was right. What Ross heard in the Oval Office was Obama consoling himself, reminding himself that when it comes to Israel he is only the temporary custodian of a partnership that persists for reasons far beyond the personal: “It’s not just me.” The scourging of Gaza, and the defying of the president, is part of the price of the special relationship.