Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Friday appeared to blame a US strategist working with the Blue and White campaign for being behind a report that Israel was likely behind the placement of devices in the vicinity of the White House that can capture cellphone calls.
In a video to supporters on Friday Netanyahu repeated a theory advanced by Fox News host Mark Levin, who suggested Thursday that former Barack Obama strategist Joel Benenson was behind the leak to Politico.
The Politico news outlet reported Thursday that the FBI had determined Israel was responsible for the placement of cellphone surveillance equipment near the White House and at other sensitive locations in Washington, DC.
“Yesterday you heard the lies that Israel tried to spy on the White House, a complete lie,” Netanyahu said in a Hebrew-language video.
He then quoted Levin as saying on his show that “this is exactly like the tricks carried out by Joel Benenson. He was an adviser to Obama and now he is the adviser to [Blue and White leaders Benny] Gantz and [Yair] Lapid.”
“For them everything is kosher,” said Netanyahu without offering any proof that Blue and White was behind the report. “They are willing to do anything and don’t care if they damage this valuable asset, our relationship with the United States and my relationship with the president.”
“Everything is kosher to garner an extra few votes and bring in a left-wing government. Don’t believe these lies,” Netanyahu said.
Lapid denied the allegation, saying Netanyahu had “gone off the rails.”
“Yesterday we supported Bibi over the eavesdropping allegation, today he said we instigated it. Never mind being a liar, what about some national responsibility? The man has gone off the rails,” Lapid tweeted.
US President Donald Trump said Thursday that he did not believe the report that Israel spied on him.
“I don’t believe that, no, I don’t believe the Israelis were spying on us. I really would find that hard to believe,” Trump told reporters at the White House after being asked about the report.
“My relationship with Israel has been great,” Trump said, listing some of his pro-Israel accomplishments. “Anything is possible,” he conceded, “but I don’t believe it.”
Earlier Thursday a senior US official also denied the report.
The story “is completely false. Absolutely false. I checked,” Noga Tarnopolsky, a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, quoted the senior administration official as saying.
Netanyahu and other senior Israeli officials swiftly rejected the accusation as a “blatant lie.” Netanyahu said it was absolutely false, without “a scintilla” of truth.
“There is a longstanding commitment, and a directive from the Israeli government not to engage in any intelligence operations in the US. This directive is strictly enforced without exception,” a statement from the Prime Minister’s Office read.
Also, an Israeli spying operation against the United States government on American soil would represent a dramatic departure from decades-old Israeli policy, a former intelligence official said.
According to Chuck Freilich, a former deputy national security adviser, that was not a pro forma denial by a government caught doing something it shouldn’t, but a true description of Israeli policy.
“Can I tell you from personal knowledge that it’s not happening today? No. Could someone have lost it completely in some upper echelon of the government? I don’t know. But based on everything I know, it’s totally false,” Freilich told The Times of Israel.
A former senior US official with knowledge of the alleged Israeli operation told Politico it was assumed that the devices were installed to spy on US President Donald Trump and his top aides, although it was unclear whether the attempt was successful.
According to Freilich, who served for more than two decades in the Israeli defense establishment, a decision was made in Israel following the Jonathan Pollard scandal to avoid spying on the United States.
In 1985, Pollard, then an intelligence analyst for the US Navy, was arrested and charged with spying for the Israeli Mossad intelligence service. He pleaded guilty a year later and served a total of 30 years in prison before his release in 2015. The incident remains a source of contention between Israeli and American intelligence services in what is otherwise considered one of the closest defense relationships in the world.
“Pollard was an aberration, and after him it was decided that this should never happen again,” Freilich said.
The former deputy national security adviser, who served in the position from 2000 to 2005, said the potential diplomatic blowback from a botched operation would represent a significant disincentive for carrying out such a mission.
“If you can’t afford to get caught, you don’t do it,” Freilich said.
According to the Politico report, which was based on conversations with three former senior US officials with knowledge of the case, the small devices, known as “StingRays,” fool cellphones into revealing their location and identifying information by mimicking a cell tower. A “detailed forensic analysis” by the FBI was said to have revealed that the devices were planted by Israel.
“It was pretty clear that the Israelis were responsible,” a former US senior intelligence official said.
On Thursday afternoon, the author of the Politico story, Daniel Lippman, said he stood by the report, despite the unequivocal denials by the Israeli government.