ISRAEL-POLITICS-CABINET-NETANYAHU

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at his weekly Cabinet meeting in Jerusalem on Sunday. (Gali Tibbon / AFP / Getty Images / December 22, 2013)

JERUSALEM — Israel is the latest country to express displeasure with reports of U.S. and British spying on its leaders, although there was not a great deal of surprise over the revelations or suggestions that they would damage relations.

Intelligence Minister Yuval Steinitz said Sunday that while Israel recognizes that it is a likely target of intelligence-gathering, foreign agencies monitoring the prime minister and minister of defense "is not acceptable to us" and "not legitimate."

Israel and the U.S. have an intelligence alliance and share the most sensitive material with each other, Steinitz added. He said the two countries must reach an agreement on "mutual prevention of espionage."

The reports of spying on Israel came as international media reported on new releases from the cache of documents taken by former U.S. National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden. Previous reports have described U.S. spying on the leaders of Germany, Brazil and Mexico, causing considerable consternation in those countries.

According to Germany's Der Spiegel, U.S. intelligence cooperated closely with British services in 2009 to intercept emails belonging to the offices of Israel's prime minister and minister of defense, then Ehud Olmert and Ehud Barak, respectively.

In addition, Israeli media reported Sunday that Israel's defense establishment suspected the U.S. was using surveillance equipment to monitor Barak from an embassy apartment rented across from his shortly before his appointment in 2007. 

Israel's current prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, is said to conduct himself with extreme caution on the assumption that he is an espionage target. Israeli media say he has no computer in his office, avoids using email and cellphones and sometimes resorts to gestures in sensitive discussions. 

Yitzhak Ben-Yisrael, a retired general and Tel Aviv University national security expert, says the reports shouldn't come as a major surprise, as most countries go to tremendous efforts to obtain information, whether from hostile countries or friendly ones.

"The interest in information needed for decision-making is all the more important for the U.S., which, as a global power, has interests everywhere," Ben-Yisrael said.

Israel does not monitor President Obama, the White House or the U.S. secretary of defense, intelligence minister Steinitz stressed.

Ben-Yisrael said Israel would think twice about such spying because of the ramifications if it were caught.

"If Israel were caught doing something like this, it would end very badly for us," he said, adding that those entrusted with such decisions take into account not only the gains of eavesdropping but the price of almost inevitable exposure.

The case of Jonathan Pollard serves as a cautionary tale. After the Jewish American intelligence analyst was sentenced to life in jail for passing classified intelligence information to Israeli intelligence agencies, Israel pledged to refrain from espionage in U.S. territory.

In light of the new information, several politicians said Israel should use the opportunity to demand Pollard's release.

Netanyahu told his Cabinet that Israel needs no special occasion to work for the release of Pollard, which has been raised with all recent U.S. presidents, including Obama. "This is neither conditional on, or related to recent events," said Netanyahu, adding without much detail that Israel has "given its opinion" on the U.S. and British spying.

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