Israel's Espionage on US Negotiators casts a Shadow on Critical Alliance

04/02/2015 02:16 pm ET | Updated Jun 02, 2015

Like Republican House Speaker John Boehner, I was "baffled" by news reports that Israel spied on U.S. negotiators in controversial, closed-door talks over Iran's nuclear program -- espionage that, of course, Israeli officials understandably denied. The basis of my surprise, however, is different from that of Mr. Boehner.

I'm surprised Israel would embark on such undertaking knowing the special relationship it has with the United States. As U.S. negotiators try to determine the best way to prevent Iran from acquiring full nuclear capabilities, Israel's decision to mount espionage activities involving its key ally only further undermines U.S. credibility on the broader stage of the Middle East. Such revelations show the world again how vulnerable the United States really is.

Granted, Israeli snooping on the United States is hardly new. It has employed espionage on many occasions. The case files involve Jonathan Pollard in 1987; Ben-Ami Kadish in 2008; and defense analyst Lawrence Franklin, who in 2006 passed classified information to an Israeli diplomat assigned to the Israeli embassy in Washington.

These incidents astonish because, in many respects, the survival of Israel depends greatly on the United States. Yet Israeli leaders are obviously willing to jeopardize such support. Boehner's surprise must torment him at some level. Only a few weeks ago, the speaker, right or wrong, threw diplomatic protocol to the winds when, without consulting the White House, he invited Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to speak before a joint session of Congress.

How could Israel acquire information about negotiations regarding Iran's nuclear program? The use of electronic surveillance and human intelligence is likely how Israel kept tabs on the Iran talks. Ironically, during testimony before the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, Secretary of State John Kerry -- when asked if the United States has kept Israel abreast of the negotiations -- replied that it had. We should not rule out the possibility that another country involved -- say, France -- provided Israelis with some information on negotiations.

In any case, Israel's leak of information about U.S.-Iranian negotiations has not been helpful in talks that were already sensitive, fragile, perhaps even ill-fated. In response, the White House has focused on Mr. Netanyahu's own provocative comments about no longer supporting the so-called two-state solution involving Israel and Palestine -- a position he abruptly assumed, at least till the voting was over and his re-election victory assured (at which time he backtracked). The United States strongly supports the two-state solution, viewing it as a fundamental pillar to U.S. foreign policy.

Result: Embarrassment all around.

Meanwhile, one wonders if the U.S. intelligence community was aware of the ongoing espionage by Israel. It's difficult to determine with any degree of certainty. However, it reaffirms an uncomfortable truth known by Washington insiders. To quote a former congressional staffer who attended a classified briefing in late 2013, "No other country close to the United States continues to cross the line on espionage like the Israelis do."

One can understand why the Israelis might be worried about our discussions with Iran. Our own elected officials seem more obsessed with their political careers than constituents at home or peace abroad. Gridlock in Congress continues to astonish the world. And our intelligence community is in desperate need of an overhaul. Consider major failures by U.S. intelligence to predict or properly assess the Arab Spring, Tahrir Square demonstrations in Cairo, the near-collapse of Yemen and the embarrassing assault on the U.S. consulate in Libya. One problem: No less than 16 agencies form the U.S. intelligence community and they communicate poorly with one another.

As Israel reflects on increasing instability in the Middle East and political shoring up needed after Netanyahu's election victory, it must remember that the only country in the world that provides it with diplomatic cover in international forums remains the United States. And risking the collapse of international negotiations due to espionage or allowing a flawed leader -- Mr. Netanyahu in this case -- to undermine U.S. support of Israel is short-sighted. Israel needs to remember the adage: Never bite the hand that feeds you.