Jeff Stein reveals another Israeli spying bombshell, reporting on an upcoming book by Anglo-Israel political scientist, Ahron Bregman, who has transcripts and copies of Israel-intercepted communications between Syria’s leaders and Pres. Bill Clinton. At the time, the U.S. was brokering talks that would have led to a peace agreement between Israel and Syria. Israel always seems obsessed with the notion that it will be sold out by the American, so it seeks to learn the positions of all the opposing parties, whether they be Syrian or Palestinian:
The Israeli intercepts, which appeared to skirt Netanyahu’s recent statement that “Israeli intelligence has not conducted any espionage operations in the United States,” gave Jerusalem a big leg up in the peace negotiations, Bregman says. “No doubt that tapping the telephones of Clinton and of the Syrians negotiating with Israelis in the U.S., as I describe, gave Israel a huge advantage, allowing them to be ahead of the game in peace negotiations and know what to expect in the actual talks and maneuver accordingly,” he said.
Even at the height of the negotiations, Madeleine Albright, then Secretary of State, realized the Israelis were untrustworthy and unreliable. She lashed out at PM Ehud Barak:
Albright lashed out at the prime minister, blaming Israel for the deadlock in the negotiations and for “playing with” Clinton’s credibility. “Very frankly…in all our history we haven’t had so many telephone conversations, the vast majority of which were on your initiative, and in these conversations you said it was very important to advance on the Syrian track…and we took it very seriously,” she told Barak, according to a Jan. 10, 2000 transcript obtained by Bregman. ” But you surprised us… because you have made the decision not to progress fast… Nothing has happened from your side… You have not got a better friend than the U.S. and you have no better friend than Clinton and you have played with his credibility… They [the Syrians] have been flexible… and we are concerned.”
Does this sound familiar? This is precisely the tone and language used by Secretary Kerry and Martin Indyk as their own recent peace talks died an agonizing death. They clearly blamed Netanyahu for intransigence and unwillingness to make the difficult decisions necessary for peace. This is essentially the history of Middle East diplomacy going back decades. A frontline state declares itself ready for peace. Israel responds positively or appears to. But when push comes to shove and the defining moment arrives, it disappears like smoke into the ether.
Returning to Netanyahu’s pledge that Israel has not spied on the U.S. since the days of Jonathan Pollard, that sentence may be parsed many ways. But the mostly likely meaning is that Israel’s eavesdropping originated with Unit 8200 inside Israel. The fact that it was listening to U.S. conversations, but doing so remotely, allows Bibi to say the espionage operation wasn’t “in” the U.S. Though this is pure semantics, a discipline at which Israeli leaders can be quite adept when it’s useful.
From the descriptions of who the Israelis could hear and who they couldn’t, it appears they had access to conversations conducted on U.S. soil, but not those that originated inside Syria. You hear Bill Clinton’s end of a conversation with Hafez al-Assad, but not Assad’s replies. You read a diplomatic message sent from Washington by Assad’s foreign minister, but don’t learn of the leader’s reply.
The ultimate chutzpah of Israel’s approach to its relationship with the U.S. can be found in a conversation Barak conducts with Bill Clinton. At that point, the U.S. president had turned to secret back channel talks with Saudi Prince Bandar, who he hoped would intercede with Assad:
According to a transcript…Barak upbraided the American president in a telephone call, in which he nearly boasted about Israel’s spying prowess. “I’ve learned from intelligence that you intend to give Israel’s needs to Syria through the Saudis…” Barak is recorded saying. “This is a mistake.” Clinton was nonplused. “Caught red-handed,” Bregman writes, “a taken-aback Clinton replied blustering, ‘… I gave Bandar nothing substantial… don’t give it another thought…’”
The Israeli wants Clinton to know he knows as much about U.S. diplomatic efforts as the president does. The effect psychologically is to throw the American off guard, to make him realize that he can do nothing without Israel’s full acquiescence. Essentially, Barak is telling Clinton that we, the Israelis, have veto power and will use it mercilessly if we don’t get our way on everything.
It is a lose-lose proposition. The most powerful nation on earth is continually brought to heel by a small Middle Eastern country which has managed to put a spell on our leaders. They may think that they have power and agency, but they don’t. There always, Barak appears to say, will be an Israeli or someone acting on Israel’s behalf looking out for Israel’s interests whether in the halls of Congress or in the White House. You have no power we don’t give you, appears to be the message.
One only hopes that the U.S. has developed more capability to defend against such surveillance since the 1990s. It would be unnerving to think such things continued to this day.
There is a rich history of espionage on both sides. The U.S. too eavesdrops on Israelis here in the U.S. and probably in Israel as well. Shamai Leibowitz showed the FBI had a wiretap on the Israeli embassy in DC and was listening to many, if not all conversations conducted in the building. Contrarily, Stein showed in previous reports that Israel did the same both to our diplomats serving there and even to leaders like Vice President Al Gore, whose King David Hotel room they tried to bug.
Tonight’s scoop: my Israeli source reveals as well that Unit 8200 intercepts all phone calls between PA President Abbas and U.S. officials like Pres. Obama and Secretary of State Kerry. Just as Wikileaks revealed that the U.S. intercepts and archives all communications within Afghanistan, you can be damn sure Unit 8200 does this in Palestine. As I’ve reported, the Ofrit base in occupied East Jerusalem, monitors all communications there. Staff there knows what Abbas has for breakfast and when he takes a crap. The question is whether Unit 8200 is still intercepting conversations on the American end. I wouldn’t bet against them.
Ronen Bergman told an Israeli news interviewer there is an NSA base monitoring and downloading data from U.S. satellites in Jerusalem. My source identified Ofrit as its location, a report the State Department refused to deny when I contacted it. An exceedingly odd arrangement I’ve written about here.
Silverstein has published Tikun Olam since 2003, It exposes the secrets of the Israeli national security state. He lives in Seattle, but his heart is in the east. He publishes regularly at Middle East Eye, the New Arab, and Jacobin Magazine. His work has also appeared in Al Jazeera English, The Nation, Truthout and other outlets.