Israel's spy agency denies opposing new Iran sanctions

Israel's spy agency denies opposing new Iran sanctions
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu flashes the sign of victory as he gives a speech during a campaign meeting Jan. 5. (Jack Guez / AFP/Getty Images)

The controversy over Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s planned address to the U.S. Congress continued to grow Thursday, dragging into the fray Israel’s spy agency, the Mossad.

Speaker John A. Boehner’s invitation to Netanyahu to speak before the House of Representatives was not coordinated with the White House and irked both the Obama administration and Netanyahu’s domestic opponents.

The Israeli leader does not see eye to eye with President Obama on increased sanctions against Iran, a likely focus of his address. Netanyahu strongly maintains that current restrictions should be increased to stop Iran’s controversial nuclear program. The Obama administration opposes fresh sanctions while talks with the Iranians continue.

Secretary of State John F. Kerry has suggested that Israel's intelligence chiefs don’t agree with Netanyahu either. Evidently displeased at the prospect of the prime minister encouraging the Republican-dominated Congress’ push for new sanctions, Kerry made reference to the alleged dispute.

In comments to Bloomberg news service, Kerry said a senior Israeli intelligence official told U.S. senators visiting Israel this week that new sanctions would be like "throwing a grenade into the process." Although Kerry did not name him, the official who met with the senators was Mossad director Tamir Pardo.

Public reports of a rift between Netanyahu and the Mossad on a centerpiece policy issue forced the spy agency out of the shadows to issue a rare statement meant to clarify its position and what Pardo had told the senators.

In a release circulated to the press in Hebrew and English, the agency stressed that Pardo had met with the senators at their request and with Netanyahu's approval.

"Contrary to what has been reported, the head of Mossad did not say he opposes imposing additional sanctions on Iran," the statement said. Reportedly, Pardo told them that "in negotiating with Iran, it is essential to present both carrots and sticks and the latter are currently lacking."


The statement also said the Mossad chief intended the "grenade" comment as a metaphor to describe not the explosion of negotiations with Iran but rather "creating a temporary crisis" that would ultimately produce better conditions for the talks. Reportedly, Pardo cautioned that "the bad agreement taking shape with Iran is likely to lead to a regional arms race."

The appearance of Israel and the U.S. intervening in each other's domestic politics put both in an uncomfortable position before Israeli elections and drew unwelcome attention to personal relations between the leaders, widely regarded as chilly.

Netanyahu will address Congress on March 3, just two weeks before the elections he hopes will keep him in power for a fourth term.

This will be the third time Netanyahu speaks to Congress. Israeli lawmaker Nachman Shai, a political opponent, described Congress as the most comfortable place for Netanyahu.

"There is no heckling, no interruptions -- only applause, applause and more applause for him there," Shai told media Thursday. "However, he's running over Israel's most important relationship on the way."

Other opponents plan to petition Israel's central election committee to keep local news media from broadcasting Netanyahu's speech.  "This is election propaganda par excellence -- and it will all be broadcast on prime time," said lawmaker Shelly Yachimovich.

In a statement Thursday, Netanyahu said he was "honored" to accept Boehner's invitation, which "reflects the special friendship" between Israel and the United States.

The address will provide an opportunity for him to "thank President Obama, the U.S. Congress and the American people for their support of Israel," Netanyahu said.

Netanyahu acknowledges differences of opinion with the U.S. administration on the approach to Iran and the Palestinian conflict, but on Thursday he stressed the points of agreement.

"Just last week I discussed with President Obama the common challenges we face from Islamist extremism, including resurgent terrorism and Iran's pursuit of nuclear weapons," said Netanyahu.

"I look forward to being able to share with the joint session Israel's vision for working together to address these threats and to reiterate Israel's commitment to the bond that unites our two democracies."

Netanyahu's statement was followed by one from the White House, saying Obama will not meet with the Israeli leader during his visit because of its proximity to Israel's elections.

Sobelman is a special correspondent.