HAIFA, Israel – With every passing day bringing new allegations of the U.S. spying on its allies, many Israelis figure they would be naive to believe America wasn't snooping on its closest ally in the Middle East.
But instead of the indignation seen in France, Spain and Germany at the prospect that the National Security Agency listened in to the phone calls of top leaders, Israelis seem to take in stride the prospect of Uncle Sam listening in.
“I think it is almost a universal assumption that everyone tries to spy on everyone,” Mark Heller, of Tel Aviv’s Institute for National Security Studies told FoxNews.com. “Since the U.S. - by virtue of its resources, if nothing else - is the most capable, then it is probably best to assume that it does [now] or has done in the past to Israel what it has apparently done to its other friends and allies.
“It’s almost a given” Heller continued. “The whole story reminds me of the scene from Casablanca when the Chief of Police is shocked to find out that there is gambling going on in the casino!”
Former spymaster Danny Yatom told reporters the suspicions are warranted.
“The Americans rightly see themselves as a superpower, but wrongly feel that they can do whatever they want, including the eavesdropping,” Yatom, former head of Israel’s spy agency Mossad, told Israeli newspaper Ma’ariv. “I can tell you with certain knowledge that [America] has been listening in on its allies, including Israel.
“The U.S. doesn’t really care about anyone [but itself],” Yatom said. “When the Americans think they need to listen in on someone, they’ll do just that.”
German Chancellor Angela Merkel reacted angrily at word her own cellphone was tapped by the U.S.
"The United States of America and Europe face common challenges. We are allies," the German leader said. "But such an alliance can only be built on trust. That's why I repeat again: spying among friends, that cannot be."
Yatom, who resigned after just two years in the job following the Mossad’s botched attempt to assassinate Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal in Jordan in 1998, said the U.S. wants to know what the Israeli administration really thinks about issues such as the ongoing Middle East peace process brokered by Secretary of State John Kerry and the potential danger posed to Israeli security by a nuclear Iran.
“It is important for them [the U.S.] to know what Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu really thinks…about these issues,” he conceded.
If one accepts that the U.S. is spying to some degree on Israel, is it safe to assume that the reverse is also true? Heller suggests that if trying to vacuum up as much information as possible from both open and confidential sources is spying then yes, it is probably the case that Israel is also spying to some degree on the U.S.
“There is however a huge disparity in capability,” Heller said. “The NSA has a larger budget than the gross domestic product of Israel and of many middle-sized European countries.”
In assessing the damage that likely U.S. spying on Israel or any other ally might cause, Heller said U.S. spying would only be detrimental to other states if such information fell into the wrong hands.
“I would guess that a revelation of that sort would only be truly damaging to the relationship if it turns out that the information was used to the detriment of the other party, or leaked to a third party which is a hostile to either or both of them,” he said.
“I think a lot of it [the shocked European reaction] is either hypocrisy or jealousy,” Heller concluded. “After all, that is why almost everybody takes whatever counter-measures they can if they want to keep things secret. In the case of the Europeans, well, they’ve done a fair bit of their own [spying] as well.”
Paul Alster is an Israel-based journalist who can be followed on twitter @ paul_alster and at www.paulalster.com