Mixed Reactions in Israel to Report of American Eavesdropping on Netanyahu

U.S. reportedly listened in to phone conversations between top Israeli officials, Washington lawmakers and American-Jewish groups.

President Barack Obama shakes hands with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, Monday, Nov. 9, 2015.
AP

Reacting to a report in the Wall Street Journal that the United States eavesdropped on Israeli officials, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's private conversations, Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz told Israel Radio on Wednesday that the report did not surprise him. But his cabinet colleague, Transportation and Intelligence Minister Yisrael Katz, said if it turns out the report is correct, Israel should file a protest.

"I didn't fall off my chair from the Wall Street Journal report," Steinitz, who is a former intelligence minister, told Israel Radio's Reshet Bet, adding that he had no doubt that Netanyahu's staff were careful to take the necessary precautions to protect sensitive information.

Katz, however, had a stronger reaction. "Israel doesn't spy in the United States and we expect our great friend, the United States, to act in a similar manner toward us," he was quoted by the Ynet news site as saying. "If the published information on the subject turns out to be correct, Israel should submit an official protest to the American administration and demand a halt to all activity of such a nature."

The French AFP news agency reported that the White House did not deny the Wall Street Journal report, but underlined the close ties that the United States and Israel have.

For his part, Immigrant Absorption Minister Zeev Elkin recalled the case of Jonathan Pollard, who was recently released from a U.S. prison after serving 30 years for spying for Israel. In comments reported by Ynet, he said the Wall Street Journal report comes despite an official U.S. declaration that the country has stopped eavesdropping on other friendly countries and against the backdrop of American insistence on imposing limitations on Pollard since his release, including barring his travel to Israel, policies that Elkin said "appear even more unacceptable." Israel, he said, has not spied on the United States since the Pollard case and would expect the United States to act in a similar manner.

Convicted spy Jonathan Pollard and his wife, Esther leave the federal courthouse in New York, November 20, 2015.
AP

The eavesdropping, reportedly by the U.S. National Security Agency, included phone conversations between top Israeli officials and U.S. lawmakers and American-Jewish groups, the Journal reported, citing current and former U.S. officials.

AP

White House officials believed the intercepted information could be valuable to counter Netanyahu's campaign against the nuclear deal with Iran, according to the unnamed officials, the Journal said.

NSA eavesdropping revealed to the White House how Netanyahu and his advisers had leaked details of the U.S.-Iran negotiations, which they learned through Israeli spying operations, the newspaper said. Israel's ambassador to the United States, Ron Dermer, was described as coaching unnamed Jewish-American groups on lines of argument to use with U.S. lawmakers, and Israeli officials were reported pressing lawmakers to oppose the deal, the newspaper said.

Meanwhile, a U.S. House of Representatives committee asked the National Security Agency on Wednesday for information about the Wall Street Journal report that the agency, while spying on Israeli officials, also intercepted communications between the Israelis and members of Congress.

In a letter to NSA director Michael Rogers, House Oversight Committee chairman Jason Chaffetz and subcommittee chairman Ron DeSantis said the story raises "questions concerning the processes NSA employees follow in determining whether intercepted communications involved Members of Congress." 

The letter from Chaffetz and DeSantis, both Republicans, asked Rogers to provide information on how the agency determines whether lawmakers' communications have been caught up in NSA eavesdropping and the latitude agency employees have in passing on the intercepts to other U.S. agencies and the White House. 

Asked for comment on the Journal report, a White House National Security Council spokesman said: "We do not conduct any foreign intelligence surveillance activities unless there is a specific and validated national security purpose. This applies to ordinary citizens and world leaders alike."

For its part, AFP reported that in March Israel denied Wall Street Journal reports that Israeli security forces spied on the talks between Iran and the major world powers.