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How Israeli spying on Iran nuclear talks might have backfired

Reports suggest that Israel spied on US diplomats involved in Iran nuclear talks. Frankly, that's not a surprise. But how Israel used that information has led to outrage.

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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu waves after speaking before a joint meeting of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington March 3. His speech, together with his government's aggressive campaign to influence Congress against an Iran nuclear deal, has turned key Democrats against him.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP/File

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The shocking part of reports Tuesday that Israel spied on American diplomats involved in the nuclear negotiations with Iran was not that friends spy on friends. That’s very old news to both intelligence experts and United States officials. Indeed, the US learned of the Israeli spying as a result of its own spying on Israel.

Rather, it’s the lengths to which the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu went in its attempts to influence Congress to kill an emerging nuclear deal with Iran.

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Mr. Netanyahu and Israeli Ambassador Ron Dermer essentially treated Congress as home turf, with their aggressive actions suggesting that they appeared to think of Washington as their domestic political landscape.

With a Republican-controlled Capitol Hill, it is no secret that much of Congress is closer to the Israeli view of Iran and its nuclear ambitions than to the White House view. But Israeli actions represented such a rupture with the White House and disregard for traditional bilateral diplomatic protocol that the efforts appear to have backfired.

The Wall Street Journal, which broke the story, painted an extensive tableau of Israeli intelligence gathering on the nuclear deal with Iran. Such efforts surprise no one, least of all officials in the White House. Israel considers the issue of a nuclear Iran to be of grave national-security importance, and Netanyahu has called the agreement being negotiated by the US and five other nations a “bad deal.”

One reason Israel felt compelled to ramp up its spying was the realization that it had been kept in the dark about the Obama administration’s secret talks with Iran last year.

Israel’s sense of estrangement from the White House apparently grew further early this year when the administration ended a habit of briefing the Israelis on advances in the nuclear negotiations.

But it was the way in which that information was used that has caused such consternation in Washington. Ambassador Dermer has spearheaded Israel’s efforts to get Congress to reject any Iran deal brokered by the Obama administration.

Ambassadors meet with members of Congress all the time to advocate their country’s policies and preferences for US action – nothing unusual about that. Much less common is that Dermer was born and raised in the US and is closely associated with one of the two major American political parties. Dermer became an Israeli citizen a decade ago, but as an American had deep ties to the Republican Party.

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Netanyahu’s speech to Congress is widely viewed as the brainchild of Dermer, who arranged the invitation with House Speaker John Boehner.

Netanyahu’s efforts, however, now appear to have undermined the very result he had hoped for.

Republican Sen. Bob Corker, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, had crafted a bill that would give Congress a say on any Iran deal. It appeared headed for bipartisan – and more important, veto-proof – support.

But then Netanyahu gave his speech to Congress, and Republican Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas sent an open letter (signed by 46 other Republican senators) to Iran’s leadership warning that any deal would last only as long as President Obama was in office.

Now Senator Corker’s efforts are thought to be a couple of votes short of a veto-proof majority. Senator Cotton’s letter and Netanyahu’s lobbying in Congress are credited with discouraging a half-dozen Democratic senators from supporting the Corker bill.

The vote tally could change before a vote on the bill, which is scheduled for April 14. But the heightened tensions and mistrust between the White House and Netanyahu are not likely to be overcome that soon.