vs. Spy: Inside the Fraying U.S.-Israel Ties
By Adam Entous
October 22, 2015
U.S. closely monitored Israel’s military bases and eavesdropped on secret
communications in 2012, fearing its longtime ally might try to carry out a
strike on Fordow, Iran’s most heavily fortified nuclear facility.
frayed at the White House after senior officials learned Israeli aircraft had
flown in and out of Iran in what some believed was a dry run for a commando raid
on the site. Worried that Israel might ignite a regional war, the White House
sent a second aircraft carrier to the region and readied attack aircraft, a
senior U.S. official said, “in case all hell broke loose.”
The two countries, nursing a
mutual distrust, each had something to hide. U.S. officials hoped to restrain
Israel long enough to advance negotiations on a
nuclear deal with Iranthat the U.S. had launched in secret. U.S.
officials saw Israel’s strike preparations as an attempt to usurp American
Instead of talking to each
other, the allies kept their intentions secret. To figure out what they
weren’t being told, they
turned to their spy agencies to
fill gaps. They employed deception, not only against Iran, but against each
other. After working in concert for nearly a decade to keep Iran from an atomic
bomb, the U.S. and Israel split over the best means: diplomacy, covert action or
Personal strains between
Obama and Israeli
Prime Minister Benjamin
Netanyahu erupted at their first
Oval Office meeting in 2009, and an accumulation of grievances in the years
since plunged relations between the two countries into crisis.
Wall Street Journal account of the souring of U.S.-Israel relations over Iran is
based on interviews with nearly two dozen current and former senior U.S. and
and Israeli officials say they want to rebuild trust but acknowledge it won’t
be easy. Mr. Netanyahu reserves the right to continue covert action against
Iran’s nuclear program, said current and former Israeli officials, which could
put the spy services of the U.S. and Israel on a collision course.
Obama and Netanyahu shared common ground on Iran when they first met in 2007.
Mr. Netanyahu, then the leader of Israel’s opposition party, the right-wing
Likud, discussed with Mr. Obama, a Democratic senator, how to discourage
international investment in Iran’s energy sector. Afterward, Mr. Obama
introduced legislation to that end.
grew during the 2008 presidential race after Mr. Netanyahu spoke with some
congressional Republicans who described Mr. Obama as pro-Arab, Israeli officials
said. The content of the conversations later found its way back to the White
House, senior Obama administration officials said.
after taking office in January 2009, Mr. Obama took steps to allay Israeli
concerns, including instructing the Pentagon to develop military options against
Iran’s Fordow facility, which was built into a mountain. The president also
embraced an existing campaign of covert action against Iran, expanding
cooperation between the Central Intelligence Agency and Mossad, the Israeli spy
leaders compared the covert campaign to a 10-floor building: The higher the
floor, they said, the more invasive the operation. CIA and Mossad worked
together on operations on the lower floors. But the Americans made clear they
had no interest in moving higher—Israeli proposals to bring down Iran’s
financial system, for example, or even its regime.
Some covert operations were run
unilaterally by Mossad, such as the assassination
of Iranian nuclear scientists, according to U.S. officials.
first Oval Office meeting between Messrs. Obama and Netanyahu, in May
2009—weeks after Mr. Netanyahu became prime minister—was difficult for both
sides. After the meeting, Mr. Obama’s aides called Ron
Dermer, Mr. Netanyahu’s
adviser, to coordinate their statements. Mr. Dermer told them it was too late;
Mr. Netanyahu was already briefing reporters. “We kind of looked at each other
and said, ‘I guess we’re not coordinating our messages,’ ” said Tommy
Vietor, a former administration
official who was there.
In 2010, the risk of covert
action became clear. A computer virus dubbed Stuxnet, deployed jointly by the
U.S. and Israel to destroy Iranian centrifuges used to process uranium, had
inadvertently spread across the Internet. The Israelis wanted to launch
a range of Iranian institutions, according to U.S. officials. But the breach
made Mr. Obama more cautious, officials said, for fear of triggering Iranian
retaliation, or damaging the global economy if a virus spread uncontrollably.
questioned whether its covert operations were enough, said aides to Mr.
Netanyahu. Stuxnet had only temporarily slowed Tehran’s progress. “Cyber and
other covert operations had their inherent limitations,” a senior Israeli
official said, “and we reached those limitations.”
Netanyahu pivoted toward a military strike, raising anxiety levels in the White
U.S. Air Force analyzed the arms and aircraft needed to destroy Iran’s nuclear
facilities and concluded Israel didn’t have the right equipment. The U.S.
shared the findings, in part, to steer the Israelis from a military strike.
Israelis weren’t persuaded and briefed the U.S. on an attack plan: Cargo
planes would land in Iran with Israeli commandos on board who would “blow the
doors, and go in through the porch entrance” of Fordow, a senior U.S. official
said. The Israelis planned to sabotage the nuclear facility from inside.
officials thought it was a suicide mission. They pressed the Israelis to give
the U.S. advance warning. The Israelis were noncommittal.
this was all an effort to try to pressure Obama, or whether Israel was really
getting close to a decision, I don’t know,” said Michéle Flournoy, who at
the time was undersecretary of defense for policy.
Mr. Obama, meanwhile, was moving
toward diplomacy. In December 2011, the White House secretly used then-Sen. John
Kerry to sound out
Omani leaders about opening a back channel to the Iranians.
the same time, the White House pressed the Israelis to scale back their
assassination campaign and turned down their requests for more aggressive covert
measures, U.S. officials said.
president spoke publicly about his willingness to use force as a last resort to
prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon—“I don’t bluff,” Mr. Obama
said in March 2012—but some of Mr. Netanyahu’s advisers weren’t convinced.
early 2012, U.S. spy agencies told the White House about a flurry of meetings
that Mr. Netanyahu convened with top security advisers. The meetings covered
everything from mission logistics to the political implications of a military
strike, Israeli officials said.
spy agencies stepped up satellite surveillance of Israeli aircraft movements.
They detected when Israeli pilots were put on alert and identified moonless
nights, which would give the Israelis better cover for an attack. They watched
the Israelis practice strike missions and learned they were probing Iran’s air
defenses, looking for ways to fly in undetected, U.S. officials said.
intelligence poured in every day, much of it fragmentary or so highly classified
that few U.S. officials had a complete picture. Officials now say many jumped to
the mistaken conclusion that the Israelis had made a dry run.
the time, concern and confusion over Israel’s intentions added to the sense of
urgency inside the White House for a diplomatic solution.
The White House decided to keep
Mr. Netanyahu in the dark about the secret Iran talks, believing he would leak
word to sabotage them. There was little goodwill for Mr. Netanyahu among Mr.
Obama’s aides who perceived the prime minister as supportive of Republican
Romney in the 2012
Netanyahu would get briefed on the talks, White House officials concluded, only
if it looked like a deal could be reached.
first secret meeting between U.S. and Iranian negotiators, held in July 2012,
was a bust. But “nobody was willing to throw it overboard by greenlighting
Israeli strikes just when the process was getting started,” a former senior
Obama administration official said.
officials approached their U.S. counterparts over the summer about obtaining
military hardware useful for a strike, U.S. officials said.
the top of the list were V-22 Ospreys, aircraft that take off and land like
helicopters but fly like fixed-wing planes. Ospreys don’t need runways, making
them ideal for dropping commandos behind enemy lines.
Israelis also sounded out officials about obtaining the Massive Ordnance
Penetrator, the U.S. military’s 30,000-pound bunker-busting bomb, which was
designed to destroy Fordow.
Netanyahu wanted “somebody in the administration to show acquiescence, if not
approval” for a military strike, said Gary Samore, who served for four years
as Mr. Obama’s White House coordinator for arms control and weapons of mass
destruction. “The message from the Obama administration was: ‘We think this
is a big mistake.’ ”
House officials decided not to provide the equipment.
Obama and Netanyahu spoke in September 2012, and Mr. Obama emerged convinced
Israel wouldn’t strike on the eve of the U.S. presidential election.
the following spring, senior U.S. officials concluded the Israelis weren’t
serious about a commando raid on Fordow and may have been bluffing. When the
U.S. offered to sell the Ospreys, Israel said it didn’t have the money.
Israeli Defense Minister Ehud
Barak, who championed a strike,
said Mr. Netanyahu had come close to approving a military operation against
Iran. But Israel’s military chiefs and cabinet members were reluctant,
according to Israeli officials.
keeping the Omani talks secret, U.S. officials briefed the Israelis on the
parallel international negotiations between Iran and major world powers under
way in early 2013. Those talks, which made little headway, were led on the U.S.
side by State Department diplomat Wendy
Einhorn, at the time an arms
control adviser at the State Department, said that during the briefings, Mr.
Netanyahu’s advisers wouldn’t say what concessions they could live with.
“It made us feel like nothing was going to be good enough for them,” Mr.
spy agencies were monitoring Israeli communications to see if the Israelis had
caught wind of the secret talks. In September 2013, the U.S. learned the answer.
Amidror, Mr. Netanyahu’s
national security adviser at the time, had come to Washington in advance of a
Sept. 30 meeting between Messrs. Netanyahu and Obama.
On Sept. 27, Mr. Amidror huddled
with White House national security adviser Susan
Ricein her office when she told him that Mr. Obama was on the phone
in a groundbreaking call with Iran’s president, Hassan
Amidror had his own surprise. During a separate meeting in the Roosevelt Room,
he told several of Mr. Obama’s top advisers that Israel had identified the
tail numbers of the unmarked U.S. government planes that ferried negotiators to
Muscat, Oman, the site of the secret talks, U.S. officials said.
Amidror, who declined to comment on the White House discussions, said that it
was insulting for Obama administration officials to think “they could go to
Oman without taking our intelligence capabilities into account.” He called the
decision to hide the Iran talks from Israel a big mistake.
officials said they were getting ready to tell the Israelis about the talks,
which advanced only after Mr. Rouhani came to office. During the Sept. 30
meeting with Mr. Netanyahu, the president acknowledged the secret negotiations.
The secrecy cemented Israel’s distrust of Mr. Obama’s intentions, Israeli
Samore, the former White House official, said he believed it was a mistake to
keep Israel in the dark for so long. Mr. Einhorn said: “The lack of early
transparency reinforced Israel’s suspicions and had an outsize negative impact
on Israeli thinking about the talks.”
pushed for the U.S. to be more open about the Iran negotiations. Ms. Rice,
however, pulled back on consultations with her new Israeli counterpart, Yossi
Cohen, who took over as Mr.
Netanyahu’s national security adviser, according to U.S. and Israeli
exchanges with the White House, U.S. officials said, Mr. Cohen wouldn’t budge
from demanding Iran give up its centrifuges and uranium-enrichment program.
Israeli officials said they feared any deviation would be taken by the U.S. as a
green light for more concessions.
one meeting, Mr. Cohen indicated Mr. Netanyahu could accept a deal allowing Iran
to keep thousands of centrifuges, U.S. officials said. Soon after, Mr. Cohen
called to say he had misspoken. Neither side was prepared to divulge their
November 2013, when the interim agreement was announced, Mr. Samore was in
Israel, where, he said, the Israelis “felt blindsided” by the terms. U.S.
officials said the details came together so quickly that Ms. Sherman and her
team didn’t have enough time to convey them all. Israeli officials said the
Americans intentionally withheld information to prevent them from influencing
As talks began in 2014 on a
final accord, U.S. intelligence agencies alerted White House officials that Israelis
were spying on the negotiations. Israel denied any espionage against
the U.S. Israeli officials said they could learn details, in part, by spying on
Iran, an explanation U.S. officials didn’t believe.
this year, U.S. officials clamped down on what they shared with Israel about the
talks after, they allege, Mr. Netanyahu’s aides leaked confidential
information about the emerging deal.
U.S. officials confronted the Israelis over the matter in a meeting, Israel’s
then-minister of intelligence said he didn’t disclose anything from
Washington’s briefings. The information, the minister said, came from “other
means,” according to meeting participants.
Sherman told Mr. Cohen, Israel’s national security adviser: “You’re
putting us in a very difficult position. We understand that you will find out
what you can find out by your own means. But how can we tell you every single
last thing when we know you’re going to use it against us?” according to
U.S. officials who were there.
Mr. Netanyahu turned to
congressional Republicans, one of his remaining allies with the power to affect
the deal, Israeli officials said, but he
couldn’t muster enough votes to block it.
officials now pledge to work closely with their Israeli counterparts to monitor
Iran’s compliance with the international agreement.
it is unclear how the White House will respond to any covert Israeli actions
against Iran’s nuclear program, which current and former Israeli officials
said were imperative to safeguard their country.
clause in the agreement says the major powers will help the Iranians secure
their facilities against sabotage. State Department officials said the clause
wouldn’t protect Iranian nuclear sites from Israel.
Hayden, a former director of the
CIA, said the U.S. and Israel could nonetheless end up at odds.
we become aware of any Israeli efforts, do we have a duty to warn Iran?” Mr.
Hayden said. “Given the intimacy of the U.S.-Israeli relationship, it’s
going to be more complicated than ever.”