Diplomacy & defense

US President Barack Obama(R) and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meet in the Oval Office of the White House on  November 9, 2015

An Israeli minister and close ally of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sought Wednesday to play down revelations the United States monitored the premier's private communications.

"I didn't fall off my chair from The Wall Street Journal report," Yuval Steinitz, minister of energy and a former intelligence minister, said on public radio.

Saul Loeb (AFP/File)

The WSJ said Tuesday that the US National Security Agency monitored Netanyahu's conversations as he campaigned against the nuclear deal with Iran that was eventually agreed in July.

Former National Security Council head Yaakov Amidror, told Army Radio that “the United States listens to everybody, therefore we don’t have to get excited about this. The US does not say this in public, but everyone knows it, and everyone knows that everyone knows.”

Israeli Transportation and Intelligence Minister Yisrael Katz reacted more sternly, saying if it turns out the report is correct, Israel should file a protest.

"Israel doesn't spy in the United States and we expect our great friend, the United States, to act in a similar manner toward us," he was quoted by the Ynet news site as saying.

"If the published information on the subject turns out to be correct, Israel should submit an official protest to the American administration and demand a halt to all activity of such a nature."

According to the report, the NSA's activity revealed to the White House how Netanyahu and his advisers “leaked details of the US-Iran negotiations – learned through Israeli spying operations – to undermine the talks; coordinated talking points with Jewish-American groups against the deal; and asked undecided lawmakers what it would take to win their votes.”

In March, Israel denied reports that its security forces spied on the negotiations between Tehran and major powers.

"Israel does not spy on or in the United States; we adhere to that rule, and one could expect others to do the same," said Steinitz, who was in charge of the Iranian file while intelligence minister between 2013 and 2015.

"But we are not naive. We know that countries -- even friendly ones -- try to collect intelligence on us, and we conduct ourselves accordingly," he said.

Steinitz reaffirmed the friendship between Israel and the United States, "our greatest and most important friend", and stressed the two countries' "excellent cooperation" on intelligence matters.

"I don't think it caused us damage," he said of the WSJ report.

Netanyahu's office, as well as the spokesman of the foreign ministry, declined to comment on the report.

For its part, the White House has not denied the Tuesday report but emphasized the depth of its relationship with Israel.

Congress probe

Meanwhile, a US House of Representatives committee asked the National Security Agency on Wednesday for information about the WSJ report that the agency, while spying on Israeli officials, also intercepted communications between the Israelis and members of Congress.

AFP Photo / Brendan Smialowski

Republican Rep. Devin Nunes of California told The Associated Press that he’s asked the director of National Intelligence and the head of the NSA to come to Capitol Hill next week to brief lawmakers on the matter.

Interceptions of conversations with US lawmakers would typically be reported to top congressional leaders and the heads of the House and Senate Intelligence committees, but Nunes said he received no such notification.

He said his goal would be to “get the facts” about the situation.

“We’re going to play this right down the middle and determine whether or not somebody did something wrong,” Nunes told AP.

White House officials stressed that the US doesn’t spy overseas "unless there’s a specific, validated national security reason to do so, emphasizing that the principle applies both to world leaders and regular citizens."

“This applies to ordinary citizens and world leaders alike,” an official told the Jerusalem Post, adding: “Our support for Israel was an important element in deterring Iran from ever seeking a nuclear weapon, and remains a critical part of our efforts to push back against Iran’s destabilizing actions in the region.”

The US intelligence community kept the relevant oversight committees in Congress fully informed about its activities, officials said.

(staff with agencies)

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