Sunday, December 22, 2013

Israelis Unsurprised by NSA Spying Revelations. Politicians Note that Pollard Has Been in a US Prison for 30 Years for doing Much Less

Reaction in Israel was muted to reports that the NSA and its British counterpart spied on former Israeli premier Ehud Olmert, former defense minister Ehud Barak and on Israeli facilities. 

The revelations were made public by N.S.A. defector-- now Moscow denizen-- Edward Snowden and published in the New York Times on Friday December 20 just as Jerusalem went offline for the Jewish Sabbath.

With the end of the Israeli weekend on Sunday, the Hebrew-language newspapers and radio news programs headlined the eavesdropping.

Israel's top political, intelligence and military leaders work under the assumption that foreigners— friends and foes— are spying on them.

Shimon Shiffer, a columnist for the anti-Netanyahu government tabloid, Yediot Aharanot, wrote that he doubted senior Israeli officials would even pretend to be outraged. "No one has been taken by surprise, Israel's top officials know that everyone wiretaps everyone else, all the time."

Ronen Bergman, who specializes in national security affairs, wrote in Yediot that the Americans were likely looking for information about a possible Israeli attack against Iran's nuclear facilities.

The NSA also reportedly spied on the Hebrew University of Jerusalem's Institute of Physics, according to the Times.

Yediot reported that American officials rented an apartment near Barak's Tel Aviv residence-- a high-rise tower -- in order to listen in on his conversations.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu holds his most sensitive discussions at Mossad intelligence headquarters to minimize the possibility of eavesdropping, according to Israel's Channel 10 news. 

For similar reasons he does not keep a computer in his office, according to Israel's Channel 2.

Intelligence Minister Yuval Steinitz, whose office has no direct operational responsibilities, called the NSA's behavior "unacceptable," according to the Jerusalem Post.

"We don't monitor the U.S. president, the White House, or the defense minister, and I think we need to reach an understanding with the U.S." not to spy on Israel, Steinitz said.

My own take is that it would have been wiser for Steinitz to restrain himself. Not every event requires a comment even if a minister has time on his hands. 

And I doubt these comments reflect anyone's thinking but his own.

For the most part, Israeli politicians used the revelations to call on the White House to pardon Jonathan Pollard, an Israeli spy who has been incarcerated in a U.S. prison for 30 years. 

Few in Israel understand why he has been punished so harshly for so long.

The new head of the Labor opposition, Isaac Herzog, called on Washington to release Pollard on the grounds that he had been punished enough for spying done long ago.

Netanyahu said little on the matter directly.

He told the Cabinet on Sunday that Israel did not need to capitalize on the NSA revelations to make the case that justice demanded Pollard be released.

Earlier, Transportation Minister Israel Katz, a member of Netanyahu's Likud Party, said Pollard was being punished for activities that were mild in comparison to what the NSA had done. 

Tzahi Hanegbi, a former head of the Knesset Foreign Affairs Committee, said the NSA revelations ought to serve as an impetus for Pollard's release.

The angriest, and characteristically shallowest, reaction came from Labor opposition Knesset member Nachman Shai, chair of  the Knesset Caucus on US-Israel Relations, who demanded that parliament's Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee hold hearings on the American espionage.

"The silence of Israeli officials following these reports is disappointing and shameful," Shai said according to the Times of Israel. 

Most Israelis will take the revelations in stride, I suspect. Like all countries, the US has interests and to protect those interests it monitors events and conversations.

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