Release the Obama-Netanyahu Surveillance Transcripts

Can Netanyahu's private conversations at long last give us, and the American president, a fuller picture of the thinking of Congress and American Jewish leaders on the Iran deal?

Seth Lipsky
Seth Lipsky
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Netanyahu and Obama at the White House, November 9, 2015.
Netanyahu and Obama at the White House, November 9, 2015.Credit: Reuters
Seth Lipsky
Seth Lipsky

The next logical move in the brawl between the Obama administration and Israel is to disclose the transcripts of what was actually said among Prime Minister Netanyahu’s camarilla during the time we were listening in. Call it a diplomatic thunderclap. It would be the best possible way to clear the air of the acrimony that has marked the last seven years.

No doubt this is a minority view in the wake of the Wall Street Journal’s scoop. It reported that Netanyahu was at the top of the list of those on whom the Obama administration continued to eavesdrop, even after promising to curtail such practices. This is generating an uproar here in America, where the House Intelligence Committee announced a probe within hours of the Journal’s report.

It doesn’t bother me that Obama might have been listening in to conversations in Netanyahu’s office, nor that he singled out Netanyahu after curtailing surveillance of other premiers. What it means is that Israel matters, that its outsized position among nations is intact in the new millennium. Nor would it bother me if Obama did sweep up conversations by visiting American congresspersons.

On the contrary, that strikes me as a bonus. The president, after all, has been unable to build a working relationship with the Congress. He lacks the easy rapport that obtained between, say, the Republican Ronald Reagan and the Democratic Speaker of the House, Tip O’Neill. The Christian Science Monitor calls Obama’s relationship with Congress “icy.” George Will likens the failure to President Carter’s.

Could it not be that the most efficient — even only — way for Obama to find out what Congress really thinks is to listen in on the visits congressmen make to Netanyahu? Congress can talk with him. It loves him, and vice versa. This is evident in all three of the invitations Netanyahu received to address a joint meeting of Congress. It has repeatedly welcomed him with rapturous applause.

Something similar could be observed in respect of Obama’s relations with the Jewish leadership. He excludes from his meetings the organizations that have been outspoken critics. The Zionist Organization of America is out, J-Street is in (better to have given J-Street a seat, if it is to have one, without expelling anyone). So the President is left with a less granular sense of the full spectrum of Jewish opinion.

Which is another reason those surveillance transcripts would be so illuminating and useful. Particularly when it comes to such matters as, say, whether to sign an appeasement with the Iranians. What did the American Jewish leadership say to Netanyahu when it was visiting him in Jerusalem — and vice versa? What did the Congressional visitors say, and what did Netanyahu say to them?

It’s hard, at this stage, to see why the details should be kept from the public. To find out what was happening in the Iran parley, Congress questioned all sorts of people — including our own state secretary, John Kerry. It couldn’t get a full answer from Kerry, even after the deal was done. At one point, Kerry suggested that even he didn’t know what was in the side deals between the International Atomic Energy Agency and Iran.

In all of American diplomacy it’s hard to think of a more dramatic flouting of the first of President Woodrow Wilson’s famous 14 Points. They were promulgated at the Versailles Conference in Paris, where World War I was ended. The first point was this: “Open covenants of peace, openly arrived at, after which there shall be no private international understandings of any kind but diplomacy shall proceed always frankly and in the public view.”

Even after the Iran deal was done, Congress couldn’t get a straight answer. The only person who seems to have been transparent is Netanyahu himself. And he was against the deal from the start. So does he keep a transcript of what transpired in his office? That would be one route to full transparency on this issue. Imagine what would happen if Netanyahu turned out to be more forthcoming with Congress than Obama has been.

Better yet, President Obama himself could release whatever transcripts his intelligence agencies have assembled of the conversations congressmen and visiting civilians participated in during visits with Netanyahu. And why not? Given the way Wikileaks has been operating, the details are bound to come out sooner or later. So President Obama might as well beat them to the story. It would be a sensational scoop.

Seth Lipsky is editor of The New York Sun. He was a foreign editor of The Wall Street Journal, founding editor of The Forward and editor from 1990 to 2000.

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