Will U.S spying hurt ties with Israel?

Will U.S spying hurt ties with Israel?

Will the recent leaks of the Anarchist surveillance program cause further stress for already tense relations between Washington and Israel?

On Friday, January 29th, the online journal The Intercept and the German news magazine Der Spiegel published photos and document excerpts obtained from Edward Snowden detailing the American and British hacking of Israeli drones and warplanes. This program – code named “Anarchist” – allowed the NSA and GCHQ to monitor video feeds and closely track Israeli military actions.

In contrast to previous revelations of US espionage – such as the NSA’s PRISM program – which triggered outrage from countries such as Germany and Brazil, the Israeli response to this revelation has been mild.

However, given the already-strained relations between Obama and Netanyahu and the angry reactions of other countries to previous revelations of US spying, it is reasonable to wonder if the Israeli reaction may indeed become more hostile. Such an escalation would cause a worsening of relations between the two countries, thereby creating a source political risk for investors. In order to accurately assess this risk, it is essential to understand the factors behind the Israeli reaction.

A study in contrasts

The risks posed by this recent spying leak can be clearly seen in the responses of the leaders and the citizens in Brazil and Germany to the revelations that PRISM was conducting mass surveillance within these countries, and had intercepted leaders’ phone calls and emails. Both countries were outraged, with leaders and citizens alike protesting the spying as a violation of their rights, all of which led to a general worsening of relations with the United States.

U.S spying "disappointing" - Yuval Steinitz

U.S spying “disappointing” – Yuval Steinitz

President Dilma Rousseff of Brazil and Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany further sought to introduce a resolution against spying at the United Nations.

While relations with Germany were relatively easily repaired – due in part to increasing fears about Russian aggression compelling cooperation with the United States – Brazilian anger at the United States caused the cancellation of a major deal between Boeing and the Brazilian Air Force.

By comparison, the Israeli response to this latest spying news has been almost nonexistent.

At a press conference given by Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz, the minister repeatedly downplayed the importance of the news, saying that it was “disappointing,” but not surprising. There were no follow-up press conferences or denunciations, and at the time of writing, the issue appears to have been dropped in the hopes that it will quietly disappear.

Variance in program type and international security role

What then, explains this difference in reaction between these states? Is the Israeli response likely to remain mild, or could it morph into a diplomatic problem for the United States?

Firstly, it is worth mentioning that the U.S was engaged in different types of espionage in each of these cases. The PRISM program that so incensed Brazil and Germany was directed at foreign citizens en masse, instead of more traditional targets for espionage, such as the military. This caused a huge backlash among foreign nationals, which in turn helped induce their democratically elected leaders to respond.

Anarchist, on the other hand, was directed at the Israeli military, and left the Israeli populace largely unaffected, thereby avoiding a domestic political backlash.


A Jewish man walks past posters calling for the release of Jonathan Pollard

More broadly, the answer lies in how these countries participate in the international system. Both Brazil and Germany exist in conditions of relative international security, with good relations with their neighbors and no fear of immediate international disputes. Simultaneously, their broader global ambitions are limited.

These states thus have only a minimal need of espionage programs – especially towards friendly states – and had come to believe that the rest of the world is similar. The discovery that the United States was spying on their personal communiques therefore came as a rude awakening to Merkel and Rousseff.

Israel is in a very different position. Surrounded by hostile states, Israeli leaders have historically been extremely aware of the utility of espionage – not only towards their enemies, but also towards their friends. Indeed, although Israel publicly swore off spying after the Jonathan Pollard affair, Israeli espionage privately targets the United States to such a degree that an NSA report claims only Russia and China are more aggressive. The U.S, for its part, has historically reciprocated by spying on Israel in turn.

The utility of espionage is thus clearly recognized inside of Israel. While the news of the NSA and GCHQ’s ability to hack Israeli planes and drones is doubtlessly disturbing, this occurrence is not unexpected for Israeli policymakers or citizens. Due to this greater Israeli acceptance of espionage as normal, and the fact that Israeli citizens were largely unaffected, it is unlikely that the Anarchist program will cause any further deterioration in U.S – Israeli relations.

About Author

Jacob Purcell

Jacob Purcell is a Middle East expert. He holds a Master's graduate from the University of Chicago Committee on International Relations Program, where he focused on International Security and International Economics. He received his BA from the University of Arkansas, where he graduated Magna cum Laude with majors in International Relations, Political Science, and Economics, as well as minors in French, History, and Classical Studies.