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US-Israel relations strained over spying allegations

Relations between the United States and Israel are believed to have hit rock bottom after America's Newsweek magazine published reports accusing Israel of espionage against the United States, including spying on Vice President Al Gore during his visit to Jerusalem 16 years ago.

Despite Israel's insistent denials of the Newsweek allegations, analysts expressed concern over the timing of the claims, with relations between Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu having deteriorated significantly after the failure of the negotiations with the Palestinians.

The security analyst for Haaretz newspaper, Amos Harel, said that the spying allegations, as well as statements by US envoy Martin Indyk (who holds Israel responsible for the failed talks) and the recent statements by Secretary of State John Kerry about Israel turning into an apartheid state, all reflect the depths of the strained relationship. He pointed out that President Obama and his administration were angry when Israel decided to appoint a pro-Republican diplomat as its new ambassador to Washington. The anger was compounded by Defence Minister Moshe Yaalon, who slammed Secretary Kerry and his efforts to push the talks forward. Harel described the series of hostile remarks as an indication of the almost complete lack of confidence between the two governments, something not seen since the premiership of Yitzhak Shamir.

Israel's Minister of Strategic Affairs, Yuval Steinitz, described the allegations as "irresponsible and baseless", adding that Israel "decided 30 years ago not to spy on the United States."

The magazine published an article by Jeff Stein on Thursday quoting a former US intelligence operative who said that "a US Secret Service agent discovered an Israeli spy hiding in a ventilation slot in the vice president's bathroom during his visit to Israel 16 years ago." According to the official, when the secret service guards left the room, "I waited for a while and then I saw a man trying to exit the ventilation slot. I coughed and the man went back into the vent."

Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman denied the allegations in an interview with Israel's Army Radio. "This is a serious smear campaign and completely inaccurate," he claimed. His remarks coincided with US National Security Advisor Susan Rice's visit to Israel. "Israel respects its commitment not to spy on the United States," Lieberman insisted.

This is the first time that Israel has faced such open espionage allegations against its main ally. In 1985, Jonathan Pollard, a security analyst in the US Navy, was arrested for leaking to the Israelis thousands of secret documents about US intelligence activities in the Arab world. He was sentenced to life imprisonment, but Israel has been making strenuous efforts to have him released on health grounds.

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