Did Israel spy on U.S.-Iran negotiations?

The Wall Street Journal is reporting that U.S. officials knew last year that Israel was spying on the closed-door talks with Iran but didn't say anything until Prime Minister Netanyahu began to brief U.S. lawmakers about how bad the deal was.

Israel denies the "utterly false" claims of spying, saying that information on the negotiations were obtained through other channels.

The espionage didn’t upset the White House as much as Israel’s sharing of inside information with U.S. lawmakers and others to drain support from a high-stakes deal intended to limit Iran’s nuclear program, current and former officials said.

“It is one thing for the U.S. and Israel to spy on each other. It is another thing for Israel to steal U.S. secrets and play them back to U.S. legislators to undermine U.S. diplomacy,” said a senior U.S. official briefed on the matter.

The U.S. and Israel, longtime allies who routinely swap information on security threats, sometimes operate behind the scenes like spy-versus-spy rivals. The White House has largely tolerated Israeli snooping on U.S. policy makers—a posture Israel takes when the tables are turned.

The White House discovered the operation, in fact, when U.S. intelligence agencies spying on Israel intercepted communications among Israeli officials that carried details the U.S. believed could have come only from access to the confidential talks, officials briefed on the matter said.

Israeli officials denied spying directly on U.S. negotiators and said they received their information through other means, including close surveillance of Iranian leaders receiving the latest U.S. and European offers. European officials, particularly the French, also have been more transparent with Israel about the closed-door discussions than the Americans, Israeli and U.S. officials said.

Mr. Netanyahu and Israeli Ambassador Ron Dermer early this year saw a rapidly closing window to increase pressure on Mr. Obama before a key deadline at the end of March, Israeli officials said.

Using levers of political influence unique to Israel, Messrs. Netanyahu and Dermer calculated that a lobbying campaign in Congress before an announcement was made would improve the chances of killing or reshaping any deal. They knew the intervention would damage relations with the White House, Israeli officials said, but decided that was an acceptable cost.

The administration can't bellyache about the spying, because we snoop on the Israelis quite regularly.  But note what they are mad about: the administration wishes to be able to spin the Iran deal to make it more palatable to lawmakers.  Bibi undercuts that effort, and the White House is angry at having to tell the truth about how truly bad this deal is shaping up to be.

AT contributor Richard Benkin e-mails, "No wonder the Democrats were mad. Israel’s operation undercut their specious argument that we had to see the deal (and pass it) before calling it a bad one."  Since a bipartisan Congress is apparently going to force the administration to clue them in on any deal with Iran, Netanyahu's timely intervention – and Israel's efforts to find out what was in the deal – make sense from the Israeli point of view.

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