Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman on Wednesday morning shot down claims published by Newsweek that Israel was spying on the United States.
“First of all, these are malicious accusations,” he said in an interview with Israel Radio, adding that there was “no basis” to the report and that Israel was not doing anything even similar to spying on the US.
“I would not agree to any spying on the United States, neither directly nor indirectly,” he said.
The Newsweek report anonymously quoted senior US intelligence officials and congressional staffers who have been privy to information on Israeli spying activities. Staffers called the extent of Israeli espionage “sobering” and “shocking,” far exceeding similar activities by any other close US allies.
But Liberman insisted that while he was on a diplomatic trip in the US last month, none of the congressmen he spoke with in formal meetings or behind closed doors had any “complaints” about spying, adding that he believes the accusations are a plot by entities in the US who seek to sabotage relations between the US and Israel.
The foreign minister downplayed concerns that the report would affect the two countries’ relationship.
Intelligence Minister Yuval Steinitz also denied the allegations Wednesday. The Israeli government resolved three decades ago not to spy on the US, and has not wavered from that decision since, he told Israel Radio. The minister also said that he met with the US intelligence chiefs multiple times over the past year, and the issue of the alleged Israeli spying never arose.
In Washington, after initially refusing to comment on the report, according to Newsweek, the Israeli embassy also categorically denied the allegations Tuesday night.
“Israel doesn’t conduct espionage operations in the United States, period,” spokesman Aharon Sagi said. “We condemn the fact that such outrageous, false allegations are being directed against Israel.”
The issue of spying has come to the forefront in recent months as the possible release of Jonathan Pollard, a jailed American-Israeli spy, was brought up in connection with Israel-Palestinian peace talks.
Pollard, a US-born navy intelligence analyst, is serving a life sentence in a North Carolina prison for spying for Israel. He was captured in 1985.
The issue of Israel’s spying also became an issue in its bid to join the US visa waiver program. Reports have indicated that Israel’s covert activities were holding it back from achieving its goal of joining the program, which would allow Israeli citizens to travel to the US with much greater ease.
The requirements to get into the waiver program are already tough. According to a statement by the Department of Homeland Security quoted by Newsweek, these include “enhanced law enforcement and security-related data sharing with the United States; timely reporting of lost and stolen passports; and the maintenance of high counterterrorism, law enforcement, border control, aviation and document security standards.”
Two obstacles are said to be a relatively high rate of visa refusal — caused by an increase in young Israelis seeking to enter America as tourists and then work illegally — and Israel’s alleged discrimination against Arab-Americans who wish to visit.
But while Israeli diplomats maintain that Jerusalem is taking concrete steps to meet the required standards, a former aide quoted by Newsweek disagreed. “They think that their friends in Congress can get them in, and that’s not the case,” he said. “The Israelis haven’t done s**t to get themselves into the visa waiver program.”
Even if they did did, the magazine said, US officials fear allowing Israel into the program would make it much easier for the Jewish state to spy on its ally.
“They’re incredibly aggressive. They’re aggressive in all aspects of their relationship with the United States,“ the aide said. “If we give them free rein to send people over here, how are we going to stop that?”