This week, Newsweek reported that Israel was spying on the US, using the cover of trade missions or joint defense technology agreements between the two countries.
In and of itself, this revelation isn't such a big deal. It's a well-known fact that allies spy on allies all the time. The Edward Snowden leaks last year revealed that the US had tapped the phone of German Chancellor Angela Merkel as well as spying on a whole host of other European leaders, who are technically its partners. The revelations caused outrage, but they merely confirmed what everyone knew: that spying happens all the time, even between friendly states.
However, according to the report in Newsweek, intelligence officials said: "Israel has crossed red lines." Counter-intelligence officials apparently told members of the House Judiciary and Foreign Affairs committees that Israel's espionage activities in America are "unrivalled and unseemly", going far beyond the activities of other close allies, such as Germany, France, the UK, and Japan.
Newsweek claims that Israel's spying in the US focuses on America's industrial and technical secrets. In their briefings to Congress, the intelligence officials did not go into detail, but a member of political staff told the magazine that the issue was "very alarming, even terrifying".
The report suggests that America's continued refusal to grant visa exemptions to Israeli citizens is because of concern that it would make it easier for Israelis to spy on the US. This is on top of the more widely stated concerns about discriminatory treatment of Arab-Americans entering Israel, and about the high number of visa refusals of young Israelis allegedly seeking to enter the US to work illegally. Last month, the Washington DC newspaper Roll Call also suggested that a major reason for reluctance to allow Israel into the visa waiver programme – which would allow Israelis to travel to the US for 90 days without applying for a tourist visa – was that it could be exploited by spies.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the report has caused controversy in Israel. The country's foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, unequivocally rejected the allegations. "We're talking about lies and falsehood, simply libel which is baseless and unfounded," he said, adding that Israel is not involved in any form of espionage at all against the US, either indirect or direct in its nature. The Israeli embassy in Washington has been instructed to protest the issue, with spokesman Aaron Sagi condemning the "outrageous false allegations" and saying: "Israel doesn't conduct espionage operations in the US, period." Israel Radio quoted unnamed senior diplomatic officials saying that the Newsweek piece was anti-Semitic and presented Israel as the enemy. Even the liberal newspaper Haaretz said that the Newsweek report "included very strong statements against Israel, verging on anti-Semitism".
The issue is particularly sensitive at the present moment, after Israel recently asked for clemency for Jonathan Pollard, the only America ever convicted of spying for an ally. Pollard is currently serving a life sentence after being found guilty of spying for Israel in 1987. Israeli negotiators raised the subject of his release in March as the US-brokered peace talks between Israel and Palestine floundered. One nameless aide quoted by Newsweek says that "it shouldn't be lost on anyone that after all the hand-wringing over Pollard, it's still going on.
It perhaps goes without saying that Israel spies on the US, and – equally – that the US spies on Israel. The Newsweek report acknowledges this latter fact without going into any detail. It is also par for the course that Liebermann denied all allegations; most states refuse to discuss intelligence matters unless confronted with incontrovertible evidence (as the US was with the Snowden revelations). Israel, in particular, is always tight lipped on security matters.
Despite the fact that inter-ally spying is fairly commonplace, it does not mean that all parties are always happy about it. The discovery last year that the US had been spying on European leaders threatened to cause major diplomatic upset. It is no secret that the relationship between Israel and America, though a close alliance, is sometimes strained. That is particularly true at the moment, as the US-led peace talks grind to a halt. But the alliance remains of paramount importance to both sides, and the likelihood of a serious rift is low. However, if the allegations are true and Israel is overstepping the unspoken boundaries by going after industrial and trade secrets, we can, as the Newsweek article suggests, expect to see the visa waiver programme stay in place for quite some time to come.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.