The fallout from Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech before congress continues as new details emerge about the means by which he and John Boehner tried to sabotage President Obama’s talks with Iran.
Late on Monday night, the Wall Street Journal reported that Israel gave information about White House/Iran talks it obtained through eavesdropping and other means to Republicans and certain Democrats to sabotage those talks.
Of course, part of the diplomatic dance is to spy on one’s friends then deny doing so, while the friend pretends not to notice.
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.
Shortly after the secret talks began, the White House learned that Israel was eavesdropping on those discussions. This was part of a broader campaign by Benjamin Netanyahu to sabotage the talks. Israel denies the eavesdropping saying it got its information “from confidential U.S. briefings, informants and diplomatic contacts in Europe.”
The reality is that countries spy on each other, even those that are the closest of allies. So had this story ended with the spying, there would be nothing to see here. The issue is Netanyahu’s use of that information to lobby Congress so that it would help him sabotage the President’s talks with Iran. Then there’s that nagging reality that Republicans in Congress were willing to sabotage U.S. diplomatic efforts to accommodate Benjamin Netanyahu.
As noted by current and former officials,
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.
Netanyahu had a receptive audience among Republicans who welcome every opportunity to disrespect the President – even if it means sabotaging diplomatic efforts. So much for the idea that partisan back biting should end at the ocean’s edge.
Netanyahu also needed support from sympathetic Democrats to successfully block a deal. Initially, he had that support because of briefings provided by Israel’s Ambassador, Ben Dermer.
White House Officials say that Dermer’s briefs involved some factual manipulation and exaggeration.
After learning about the briefings, the White House dispatched senior officials to counter Mr. Dermer. The officials told lawmakers that Israel’s analysis exaggerated the sanctions relief by as much as 10 times, meeting participants said.
One of the issues discussed during the briefings was the number and type of centrifuges Iran would be allowed to keep. According to U.S. officials, the briefings were misleading because Israeli officials didn’t disclose the concessions asked of Iran.
Those included giving up stockpiles of nuclear material, as well as modifying the advanced centrifuges to slow output, these officials said.
According to current and former officials, The Administration didn’t brief lawmakers on this issue because the information was classified and “the details were still in flux.”
Another issue is sanctions relief. White House sources assert that during briefings with U.S. lawmakers, Israel exaggerated the extent of sanctions relief “by as much as ten times.”
It’s possible that Netanyahu’s plan might have succeeded if not for the controversy surrounding Netanyahu’s speech before Congress. However, John Boehner decided to invite Netanyahu to speak before Congress rather than going through the White House. It was a breach of protocol, but it was also and perhaps more about showing disrespect for the President. In hindsight, the Netanyahu speech was characteristic of right wingers going too far with similar results. In the end, the scheme blew up in their faces.
Boehner and Netanyahu miscalculated the extent to which the breach of protocol would alienate Democratic Senators they needed like Joe Manchin, Kristen Gillibrand and Dianne Feinstein. In fact, Senator Manchin told Dermer that Boehner’s invitation to Netanyahu was a breach of diplomatic protocol back on February 3rd. Two days later, Dianne Feinstein told Israel’s ambassador that she would not support legislation to block a potential agreement between Iran, the U.S and several other countries.
Tuesday morning, an official from Netanyahu’s office told NBC, ”The state of Israel does not conduct espionage against the United States or Israel’s other allies.”
Israeli officials made similar denials to the BBC.
The fact is Netanyahu and Boehner cared more about showing the world their disrespect for President Obama than about a long established diplomatic protocol. For all his back pedaling, Netanyahu has been Prime Minister of Israel long enough to be familiar with the basics of diplomatic protocol.
Moreover, within the realm of domestic politics, any deal with Iran will never be good enough for Benjamin Netanyahu. His political success in Israel depends on stoking fears even if it comes at the expense of national, regional and international security concerns over the prospect of an Iran with nuclear weapons. He proved that in offensive remarks he made about Arab Israelis that sounded a lot like the Israeli version of a “southern strategy.”
Now, congressional aides and Israeli officials acknowledge that the team of Boehner and Netanyahu no longer has the coalition they needed to overcome a presidential veto of legislation to block a potential deal.
Within the context of national politics, Republicans showed us once again that our country’s interests comes a distant second to their bitterness for the President who Americans elected twice.
Meanwhile, Netanyahu is wooing France to do the job that Boehner couldn’t.