House Speaker John Boehner, R-OH, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu make their way to the lectern to deliver statements outside of the Speaker's office, May 24, 2011 at the US Capitol in Washington, D.C.
Photo by Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty

Did Netanyahu leak sensitive information?

It’s no secret that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is a fierce opponent of ongoing diplomatic talks with Iran. Indeed, he’s eager to partner with congressional Republicans to derail the international negotiations – for the first time ever, lawmakers invited a foreign leader to deliver a speech to a joint session of Congress for the express purpose of condemning, and working to undermine, American foreign policy.
Just how far would Netanyahu go to achieve his goals? David Ignatius raised an alarming possibility yesterday in his Washington Post column.
Mistrust between the Obama administration and Benjamin Netanyahu has widened even further in recent days because of U.S. suspicion that the Israeli prime minister has authorized leaks of details about the U.S. nuclear talks with Iran.
The decision to reduce the exchange of sensitive information about the Iran talks was prompted by concerns that Netanyahu’s office had given Israeli journalists sensitive details of the U.S. position, including a U.S. offer to allow Iran to enrich uranium with 6,500 or more centrifuges as part of a final deal.
The point of the alleged leak was to make it seem as if the West were giving Tehran a sweetheart deal, though Ignatius’ piece went on to note that Obama administration officials believe the leaked details were misleading and removed from relevant context.
In fairness to the Israeli Prime Minister, we don’t yet know whether the suspicions are true. Ignatius offered no hints about his sources and no one has even gone on the record in making the accusation.
Having said that, Ignatius is hardly a purveyor of baseless speculation. On the contrary, he has a reputation for being responsible in these areas, which makes the underlying allegation that much more serious.
The point here is simple: the United States and Israel are close allies. If Netanyahu and/or officials in his administration leaked sensitive details in the hopes of derailing ongoing talks, then it’s a serious breach of trust that will have real and practical consequences.
Indeed, Ignatius’ piece went on to say, “U.S. officials believed that Netanyahu’s office was the source of these reports and concluded that they couldn’t be as transparent as before with the Israel leader about the secret talks.”
And that’s a problem. It’s in the interest of both the U.S. and Israel to have an open and constructive relationship when it comes to sharing intelligence. If U.S. officials believe they have to start holding back because Netanyahu is untrustworthy, it deepens the rift between the two allies at a delicate time.
Max Fisher had a good piece on this yesterday, explaining why the possible breakdown could be “bad for everyone.”
[T]he US and Israel have a long and productive track record of intelligence sharing, particularly when it comes to Iran, and this would be a worrying indication of the US-Israel breakdown. That should worry everyone, and not just observers who are skeptical of an Iran deal or who believe that preserving the level of US-Israel cooperation is more important.
Some proponents of a nuclear deal with Iran may welcome this news as demonstrating that Netanyahu is a bad actor who should be sidelined from the negotiations process. But this would be misguided, and even proponents of a deal should worry about this development. One reason that Iran is willing to negotiate at all is that the US has succeeded in putting enormous pressure on the country and its nuclear program – often with crucial Israeli help. That has meant both gathering intelligence and, in cases such as the 2010 cyberattack on centrifuges via the Stuxnet virus, offensive operations.
If the US and Israel cooperate less on Iran, and the pressure on Iran drops (or Tehran believes that it is likely to drop), then Iran has less incentive to make the painful concessions necessary to strike a deal, and a final nuclear deal is thus less likely to be achieved.
On a related note, let’s also not forget that the day before Ignatius’ column was published, Netanyahu gave an address in Jerusalem in which he seemed to acknowledge the goal of his speech to the U.S. Congress would be to “prevent” the nuclear talks with Iran from reaching their goals.
In other words, there is no ambiguity about everyone’s intentions: congressional Republicans are partnering with a foreign head of state in order to undermine the American president and American foreign policy.