Israeli officials are denying reports that the country's intelligence service spied on closed-door talks in a bid to derail ongoing nuclear negotiations between Washington, Iran, and four other world powers known as the P5+1.
According to a Monday night report in the Wall Street Journal citing current and former US officials, Israel obtained information on the P5+1 talks via eavesdropping and leaks from European officials. Israel used the intelligence to try and drum up opposition among US lawmakers ahead of the important March 31 deadline for a framework on an Iran nuclear deal.
European officials, particularly the French, who recently expressed their skepticism about reaching even a preliminary agreement with Tehran, have reportedly been more forthcoming with their information sharing with the Israelis than the US.
Israel's alleged espionage operation, which reportedly began more than a year ago, was apparently exposed to Washington when US security services intercepted communications between Israeli officials containing information that only insiders to the talks should be privy to.
High-ranking officials from both Israel and the US said that mutual spying is a tolerated norm between the two countries, however the report quoted a senior US official as saying: "It is one thing for the US and Israel to spy on each other. It is another thing for Israel to steal US secrets and play them back to US legislators to undermine US diplomacy."
Commenting on the allegations today, Israel's outgoing foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman rebutted the report's charges of spying on Washington but did not, however, deny that Israel was gathering information on the Iran talks through other means.
"All the information we gathered was from another entity, not the US," he told Israel's Army Radio station.
Speaking on Israeli Chanel 2 television network, Strategic Affairs Minister Yuval Steinitz said the report is "intended to damage the strong ties between the US and Israel."
While the White House has not commented on the allegation, Israel's Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon said he is not aware of any official complaints from the US administration over the claims.
"There is no way, and there was no way, that Israel spied on the Americans. That is seriously forbidden among every level of Israel's policy leaders," he said, adding that the allegations were the result of someone attempting to "stir conflict."
Tensions between Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the Obama administration are already sky-high after a series of diplomatic incidents during the build-up to elections in Israel, which were held Tuesday.
Israel, believed to be the only fully-fledged nuclear power in the Middle East, has long opposed Iran's nuclear ambitions. Earlier this month, Netanyahu accepted an invite to Congress at the request of Republicans without consulting the Obama administration. The Israeli prime minister's impassioned address in which he warned a deal with Iran would turn the Middle East into a "tinderbox" received 26 standing ovations from Congress, but was boycotted by several high-ranking Democrats, including Obama.
The day before the speech, White House spokesperson Josh Earnest hinted at concerns that Netanyahu might be privy to classified information from the talks when he warned the Israeli prime minister that any leaks during the speech would "betray the trust between allies."
Since then, relations between the two countries have deteriorated further, as Netanyahu launched a dramatic and aggressive election campaign to claw back right wing votes for his lagging Likud party — including a turnabout on his commitment to a two-state solution, and issuing a controversial election day warning to voters that "Arabs are voting in droves."
The comments, which Netanyahu has since tried to backtrack from, received a sharp reproach from a number of White House officials, including Obama, who called the prime minister's rhetoric divisive and criticized his actions for eroding democracy while emphasizing that the US remains committed to a two-state solution.
Speaking on Monday afternoon, State Department spokesperson Melanie Harf appeared to reject an apology to Israeli Arabs made by Netanyahu earlier in the day.
"When he says one thing one day and another thing another, it's impossible to tell if he's sincere," she told reporters. "We can't read his mind."
Israeli President Reuven Rivlin is expected to officially recommend Wednesday that Netanyahu head the formation of the country's next government. Consultations over the weekend showed the Likud leader commands the support of enough parties to pull together a coalition with the required 61 seats in the Knesset, Israel's parliament.