Israel plays down news that US spied on its prime ministers

Israel plays down news that US spied on its prime ministers

Jerusalem said to recognize it is a prime beneficiary of American intelligence information in the war against terrorism

US President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu after a joint news conference, Wednesday, March 20, 2013, at the prime minister's residence in Jerusalem. (photo credit: AP/Carolyn Kaster)
US President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu after a joint news conference, Wednesday, March 20, 2013, at the prime minister's residence in Jerusalem. (photo credit: AP/Carolyn Kaster)

Recognizing that it is a prime beneficiary of US intelligence in the relentless war against terrorism, the Israeli government chose over the weekend to downplay news that US and British intelligence agencies spied on the offices of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his predecessor Ehud Olmert. Evidence of the spying emerged in documents leaked by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, which referred to email intercepts, but did not detail what information might have been exposed.

Netanyahu’s office issued no formal response to the news, Olmert said he was certain nothing of real intelligence value had been compromised, and Prof. Yitzhak Ben-Yisrael, a former Knesset member and cyber-expert, said mildly that the “working assumption” for sensitive material had to be that foreign agencies would try to get their hands on it.

Only Minister of Intelligence Yuval Steinitz spoke out on the issue, calling the spying “unacceptable.” Speaking on Channel 2’s Meet the Press, Steinitz said that “Israel has unique intelligence relationships with the US and Britain — it [operates] like one intelligence community that shares information. Under these conditions, I think it’s unacceptable. We don’t spy on the US President and the White House.” But, he added, Israel’s “working assumption is that even friendly countries try to listen in, and [Israel] takes the necessary security measures.

Alon Pinkas, a former Israeli consul-general in New York, noted a certain “hypocrisy” in that spy-for-Israel Jonathan Pollard has been in a US jail for 28 years, while the US is now proven to have spied on Israel. But Pinkas, a former aide to ex-defense minister Ehud Barak (another of the spying targets), made no particular fuss about the matter, noting that there are things “that the Americans can do” that their allies simply aren’t allowed to.

Netanyahu has long championed demands for Pollard’s release, reportedly seeking the freedom of the Jewish American/Israeli intelligence analyst as part of the terms for July’s restart of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, which included provisions for Israel to free over 100 long-time Palestinian terror convicts.

But his office would not be drawn on the issue on Friday or Saturday. Unnamed sources in Jerusalem quoted by Israel’s Channel 2 news said Israel was concerned that the release of the Snowden documents was aimed at provoking new tensions between Jerusalem and Washington and that Israel wanted to avoid this. Anything that needed to be clarified would be handled privately, the sources said.

The TV report noted that Israel’s leadership is well aware that it is a major beneficiary of American intelligence information as it strives to protect its citizens against terrorism and other threats.

Netanyahu and the Obama administration have been waging a public war of words over the US-led effort to thwart Iran’s nuclear program in recent weeks, with the prime minister publicly branding last month’s interim deal reached in Geneva a “historic mistake.”

President Barack Obama, responding to the latest leaks on Friday, stressed that “we need this intelligence,” but said it might be possible to institute better “checks and balances.” Obama added: “Just because we can do something doesn’t mean we necessarily should.”

The New York Times, The Guardian and Der Spiegel reported Friday that Olmert and Barak were among more than 1,000 high-profile targets of surveillance in more than 60 countries; the documents were dated between 2008 and 2011. Israel’s Ynet added that the surveillance extended to email intercepts at Netanyahu’s office when he took over from Olmert as prime minister in March, 2009.

Sources in Jerusalem were quoted Friday saying that the Israeli leadership had not “fallen of their chairs” at the news that they were spied upon. Netanyahu “is cautious and suspicious,” does not have a computer in his office, does not use email and does not have a private phone, Israel’s Channel 2 reported, “so they’d have to find other ways” to spy on him.

Olmert, who did respond to the news, said the email address in question was not a particularly sensitive one. Olmert’s office said there was “zero” likelihood of any security damage.

The key issue of interest to the US at the time was Israel’s intentions as regards possibly attacking Iran’s nuclear facilities, the Ynet report said, given Israel’s refusal to promise the US that it would not attack, or to commit to giving the US advance warning of any such attack. Barak, who was tasked by Netanyahu with coordinating with the US over Israel’s handling of the Iran crisis, has frequently remarked that he always worked under the assumption that he was working under round the clock surveillance by international agencies, the Ynet report noted.

The documents show that the agencies monitored an email address described as “Israeli prime minister.” Olmert, who filled the top job for much of the relevant period, confirmed that the address was used for correspondence with his office, but said that such correspondence was mainly handled by staffers. The same address was used by Netanyahu, Ynet reported (Hebrew).

The email traffic at that address was not encoded, and emails related to speeches, communications with the public and other non-sensitive issues, Hebrew media reports said Friday night.

The Ynet report said that the US interest in the email address would also have been in monitoring contacts between the Prime Minister’s Office and right-wing, pro-settlement groups, since the US at the time doubted the accuracy of what Israel was telling it about the scale of its building in West Bank settlements, and may have hoped to obtain more accurate information.

The Institute of Physics at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem was also reportedly targeted, as were two Israeli embassies.

The interception of Olmert’s email came at a sensitive time, while he was dealing with international condemnation of Israel’s Operation Cast Lead, according to the Times. Relations between the US and Israel were also tense, as they are today, over Israel’s preparations for an attack on Iran’s nuclear program. According to the report, the allies were also at odds over cooperation on a wave of cyberattacks against Iran’s major nuclear enrichment facility.

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