This week President Barack Obama reaffirmed the U.S. commitment to Israel’s security with the sort of ringing rhetoric that might have soothed the concerns of even his most strident critics. It was possible to point out a gap between the reality of American actions on the Palestinians and Iran and the president’s words. But, as I noted yesterday, there’s no denying that the administration has continued the security alliance with the Jewish state even if President Obama’s main goal in the relationship continues to be the establishment of more daylight between the positions of the two nations. But even as some pundits were touting the president’s appearance at an Israeli embassy event as a sign of a rapprochement between Washington and Jerusalem, we must now figure into the equation the news that the U.S. has been operating an extensive electronic spy operation against the Israelis for 18 years.
The revelations, which are part of the Edward Snowden leaks of classified data, were apparently published by his journalistic collaborator Glenn Greenwald in The Intercept as well as Der Spiegel. The anti-Israel hacking dates back to the Clinton administration and was a joint operation of U.S. and British intelligence that was conducted from a base in Cyprus that is used by the U.K. forces. Though the operation could be used against any number of nations in the Middle East, its primary focus was clearly the state of Israel and resulted in the U.S. being able to track the transmissions of Israeli aircraft and view videos and any commissions between planes, drones, and Israeli commanders. The point of the endeavor was apparently to keep tabs on any possible Israeli moves against Iran as well as to merely give U.S. spooks and their political masters the ability to know just about everything that Israel is doing in its efforts to defend the country from Hezbollah and Hamas terrorist bases.
It is being described in the Israeli press as the worst disaster in the history of Israeli intelligence, and it’s hard to argue with that. The point is, if the U.S. and the Brits have been able to crack Israeli encryption systems then not only must Jerusalem worry about what use its friends are making of this data, it must also worry about whether they will keep it secret. Just as scary is the prospect that enemies have also been able to snoop on Israeli military communications.
What conclusions should we draw from this?
First, no one should be shocked. All nations spy on each other, including allies. Israel is still getting over the Jonathan Pollard scandal even though it took place over 30 years ago. Given the damage that foolish operation caused both for the U.S.-Israel alliance, it’s likely that the Jewish state hasn’t repeated the blunder and is keeping its word about not spying on the Americans. But although the White House continues to say that the U.S. doesn’t spy on everyone without a “specific, validated national security reason” for the effort, thanks to Snowden’s illegal leaking, we know that the U.S. devotes quite a lot of effort to spying on Israel. In particular, reports have told of the expenditure of a great deal of U.S. effort seeking to snoop on Prime Minister Netanyahu during his long argument with Obama over the Iran nuclear deal.
Second, from an Israeli frame of reference, there ought to be a hue and cry about the failures of its vaunted spooks. For decades, Israeli intelligence has had a legendary reputation that gave it enormous prestige abroad and its leaders tremendous influence at home. This persisted despite a history of intelligence catastrophes that often left the country surprised by technological advances on the part of its enemies. That doesn’t make them unique but it ought to remind Israelis that there is a reason why civilians should have the ultimate decision-making power over operations, not spies or generals.
This is especially relevant because a number of former heads of Israeli intelligence have taken on a political role in recent years, seeking changes in policy regarding the Palestinians and opposing even the idea of a strike on Iran despite support from elected leaders. History will tell whether or not they or Netanyahu was right. But this fiasco ought to put their claims to omniscience in perspective. Israeli intelligence is no more infallible or in possession of unique insight than the CIA. And no one, even those of us that greatly admire the work of the people who toil bravely for U.S. intelligence would like them to be in charge of American policymaking. Israel’s “Gatekeepers” need to account for their own failures (along with what are, no doubt, their many successes) before
Last, there is the question of how much effort the U.S. is expending on seeking to restrain Israeli measures of self-defense while largely ignoring the efforts of both Hezbollah and Hamas to prepare for a new war against the Jewish state.
This week, we also learned that a tunnel collapse took the lives of seven Hamas operatives in Gaza. These weren’t the first tunnel casualties but the willingness of Hamas to talk openly about the setback only underscored the massive nature of the tunnel building operation going on along Israel’s southern border.
Hamas apparently has more than 1,000 people working around the clock six days a week to dig more tunnels under the Israeli border. Moreover, its commander is openly boasting that during the next conflict with the Israelis, it will operate “inside the territory of 1948,” meaning Israel. That’s a helpful reminder to Westerners that think the conflict is about Israel’s “occupation” of the West Bank. Hamas states openly that it views Tel Aviv as being under “occupation” every bit as much as any hilltop settlement in the West Bank. Moreover, Palestinian public opinion in both Gaza (from which Israel withdrew completely in 2005) and the West Bank seems to agree with them.
Hamas has also completely replenished its stock of missiles and rockets since the last war it fought with Israel in 2014. That it did so with the assistance of its Iranian patron is not in doubt.
The same is true of Hezbollah, which has been fighting in Syria at Iran’s behest on behalf of the Assad regime. Yet it has also amassed an enormous arsenal of rockets aimed at Israel. According to no less an authority than Secretary of State John Kerry, it now has 80,000 missiles aimed Israeli targets, also provided to them by Iran. He said that in the context of acknowledging that Iran is likely to use some of the great wealth it will acquire as a result of the nuclear deal with the West to fund both Hezbollah and Hamas terrorism.
So the situation in the Middle East is such that Israel must be ready for a resumption of hostilities with Iranian-backed terrorists in both its northern and southern borders. It must do so knowing these enemies are preparing to rain down destruction on its cities, or to invade its territory to kill and kidnap its citizens. The U.S. has sought to give Israel more military aid to combat these threats, though, as happened in 2014, the White House may shut down any resupply operations if it wants to squeeze the Israelis at any moment. But if that wasn’t worrisome enough, the U.S. is also indirectly helping to fund the terrorists and expending great energy spying on the Israelis.
If Israelis are sometimes confused about whether the administration means it well, they cannot be blamed. It’s a cruel world where friends spy on each other. But the willingness of the U.S. to look the other way about terrorists planning mayhem takes the cognitive dissonance of this situation to a new and altogether more troubling level.