Israeli intelligence eavesdropped on phone calls between President Bill Clinton and Syria’s late strongman Hafez al-Assad during sensitive Middle East peace negotiations 15 years ago, a forthcoming book says, citing verbatim transcripts of the calls.
Israeli intelligence also listened in as Syria’s foreign minister in New York called Assad in Damascus to report on his private conversations with American officials during the delicate 1999 talks, according to Ahron Bregman, author of Cursed Victory: A History of Israel and the Occupied Territories, scheduled for publication in the U.K. next week.
Bregman, a British-Israeli political scientist and author of several books about the Jewish state and the Arabs, cites unnamed “private sources” who provided him transcripts of the telephone calls, and of confidential conversations in 1999 between Clinton and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak. Bregman also obtained a copy of a letter from Clinton’s Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, to Barak’s predecessor as prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, marked “SECRET,” promising that the U.S. would check with Israel first before offering peace proposals to the Arabs. “Recognizing the desirability of avoiding putting forward proposals that Israel would consider unsatisfactory,” Albright wrote Netanyahu on Nov. 24, 1998, “the U.S. will conduct a thorough consultation process with Israel in advance with respect to any ideas the U.S. may wish to offer to the parties for their consideration. This would be particularly true,” Albright wrote, “with respect to security issues or territorial issues related to security…”
Albright, who was traveling in Brazil this week, declined to comment, according to an aide. Aides to former President Clinton did not respond to emails and phone calls asking for comment, nor did the Israeli embassy in Washington. A spokesperson for the White House National Security Council also declined to comment.
The wiretapping revelations will likely be greeted in Israel as explosive, analysts said, not for what the conversations exposed so much as the fact that they were leaked – suggesting that there is “an Israeli Edward Snowden,” as one put it.
Ronen Bergman, senior military and intelligence affairs correspondent for Yedioth Ahronoth, Israel’s largest circulation daily, said the wiretapped conversations “dovetail with what is known about the negotiations under way at the time between Israel and Syria under American mediation,” but wondered about who was listening.
“Was it Israel that listened in to these conversations? This is a tough question to answer,” he told Newsweek “There's no doubt that Israel was (and still is) interested in eavesdropping on Assad or any other Syrian president, but did its surveillance include his conversations with the president of the United States? Was Ehud Barak running spies in Washington?”
Bergman said he doubted it, despite the transcripts Bregman obtained.
According to an internal NSA document recently published by journalist Glenn Greenwald, Israel’s Unit 8200 eavesdroppers “target us to learn our positions on Middle East problems.” A CIA-led National Intelligence Estimate on cyberthreats in 2013 “ranked Israel the third most aggressive intelligence service against the U.S.,” behind only China and Russia. Newsweek has reported recently on alleged Israeli espionage against the United States, despite its official pledges to stop after the 1985 arrest of its American agent, U.S. Navy intelligence analyst Jonathan Pollard.
“To the best of my knowledge,” Bergman told Newsweek, “after the Pollard affair, Israel does not spy on the United States or against American targets. On the other hand, the fact that Bregman managed to get ahold of wiretap transcripts, the holy grail of intelligence, whether they were obtained by Israel or the United States or any other intelligence power, proves that Edward Snowden is not alone.”
Bregman, a former artillery officer in the Israeli Defense Forces, declined to discuss his sources or what steps he took to authenticate the transcripts. "I think your assumption should be that if a reputable publisher such as Penguin decides to go along with that, then they probably checked the matter with me and approved," he told Newsweek by email from London, where he settled in 1988 after refusing to serve in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza territories.
Generally speaking, although Israel’s version of the NSA, Unit 8200, is tasked with electronic eavesdropping, Bregman repeatedly refers to “Israeli agents” as intercepting the telephone calls. “I didn't know at the time – and I'm not sure now – how the listening was made,” he told Newsweek. “I wanted something simple and general to help the reader and make the text fluent and smooth… NSA [and] Unit 8200 is just too complicated,” he said, “so I chose ‘Israeli agents.’ It's general enough, I believe, to include all the possibilities.”
The Israeli intercepts, which appeared to skirt Netanyahu’s recent statement that “Israeli intelligence has not conducted any espionage operations in the United States,” gave Jerusalem a big leg up in the peace negotiations, Bregman says. “No doubt that tapping the telephones of Clinton and of the Syrians negotiating with Israelis in the U.S., as I describe, gave Israel a huge advantage, allowing them to be ahead of the game in peace negotiations and know what to expect in the actual talks and maneuver accordingly,” he said.
Israel is hardly alone in such diplomatic espionage. Documents obtained by Wikileaks and Snowden revealed U.S. intelligence and its closest allies have targeted members of the United Nations Security Council, among other diplomats, to gain an edge in negotiations.
What the transcripts obtained by Bregman underscore is no surprise: the role played by the United States in nudging each side to the negotiating table. Here, for example, is Clinton trying to explain to Assad Israel’s problem with withdrawing to Syria’s borders with Israel before the June 4, 1967, Six-Day War.
‘Your gaps are not significant…” Clinton tells Assad on Aug. 24, 1999, according to a telephone transcript obtained by Bregman. Clinton assured the Syrian strongman that Barak was aware of an earlier promise by his predecessor as prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin, who was assassinated by a Jewish extremist, that Israel will withdraw fully from the Golan heights “and he is not asking it back… “ But Clinton’s message to Assad was that Barak could not go public with the pledge for fear of a negative reaction in Israel. Something, however, could be worked out, Clinton promised Assad. ”[Barak] believes you are a man of honor…I know he is not playing games … “ Assad’s response is not in the transcript.
A few days later, on Sept. 2, 1999, Clinton called the Syrian president again, and again “Israeli agents” were listening, Bregman writes, “although Assad himself cannot be heard.”
“Mr. President, let me try and finish,” Clinton said to Assad, according to Bregman’s transcript. “[Barak’s] afraid that if he mentions explicitly the 4 June line, the matter will be leaked – and it would not be your fault, Mr. President, but because in Israel the nature of everything is to be leaked… He's afraid that over a period of time, the public in Israel, before its vote [in a referendum] would only hear about 4 June without understanding whether there was a [Syrian] response to [Israel’s] security interests… or to any other issue.”
Earlier, Israeli intelligence had also intercepted a telephone call from a Syrian diplomat, Riad Daoudi, and his boss, Foreign Minister Farouk al-Shara, after Daoudi met secretly with an Israeli emissary in Switzerland, according to Bregman. “Sir, the situation now… is a bit tense,” Daudi said after meeting with retired Israeli Gen. Uri Saguy, who, according to the transcript, confirmed Clinton’s message that Barak would not repudiate an earlier secret pledge on the border issue by his predecessor, but “can’t in any way declare” it publicly.
Israeli intelligence later learned that the Clinton team was warming to Syria’s concerns. On Sept. 29, 1999, agents listened in as Syrian foreign minister al-Shara called Assad from New York to report on his meeting with Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. “She shows a lot of understanding ... “ al-Shara said, according to a transcript obtained by Bregman. “[The Americans] are learning … I have explained to her that this [issue of land] is very sensitive … every meter is important [for Syria]… She understood this but said that the other ones” -- the Israelis-- “insist. She said, `But this is what they want,’ so I told her, ‘convince them [otherwise].’” Shara also reported to Assad that he told Albright he was upset by Israel’s “racist” language in the talks. “[The Israelis] say that they will not allow [the Syrians] to dip their toes in the water [of the Sea of Galilee]. I said that these are racist words … She showed sympathy… She said to me, `You’re right’ ... So she understands, Sir.’”
In the end, a combination of al-Shara’s harsh public statements on Israel and both Syria and Jerusalem’s intransigence on the Galilee border issue proved fatal to the talks. “Shara has screwed us… “ Clinton told Barak on Dec. 15, 1999, according to a transcript acquired by Bregman. “I think that the most important thing for you is the Sea of Galilee. If I were in your place I would be concerned that someone” -- Syria -- “could try to poison the water of the Sea of Galilee….”
But only a few weeks later, Albright lashed out at the prime minister, blaming Israel for the deadlock in the negotiations and for “playing with” Clinton’s credibility. "Very frankly...in all our history we haven't had so many telephone conversations, the vast majority of which were on your initiative, and in these conversations you said it was very important to advance on the Syrian track...and we took it very seriously,” she told Barak, according to a Jan. 10, 2000 transcript obtained by Bregman. ”But you surprised us… because you have made the decision not to progress fast… Nothing has happened from your side… You have not got a better friend than the U.S. and you have no better friend than Clinton and you have played with his credibility… They [the Syrians] have been flexible… and we are concerned.”
Israeli intelligence would prove its mettle again and again during the negotiations--right up until their collapse the following summer, Bregman shows. In July 2000, he writes, “Israeli spies… a strong presence in Washington and, indeed, in Damascus, had found out about” a secret effort by Clinton to use Saudi Prince Bandar as a back channel to Assad. According to a transcript obtained by Bregman, Barak upbraided the American president in a telephone call, in which he nearly boasted about Israel’s spying prowess. “I've learned from intelligence that you intend to give Israel's needs to Syria through the Saudis…” Barak is recorded saying. “This is a mistake.”
Clinton was nonplused. “Caught red-handed,” Bregman writes, “a taken-aback Clinton replied blustering, ‘… I gave Bandar nothing substantial… don’t give it another thought…’”
The negotiations were all but scuttled by the time the parties met at Camp David on July 20. Thanks to his intelligence corps, moreover, Barak was well-armed when Clinton proposed “starting from scratch,” as Bregman puts it, “and going back to the very basics of the disagreements between the parties,” starting with Palestinian demands of a return to the borders of the West Bank and Gaza before the 1967 war.
“[R]eports from his spies in Washington had reached him just before he left for Camp David,” Bregman writes of the Israeli prime minister, “giving him enough time to make up his mind about the U.S. approach: He was not in favor.”
Newsweek Contributing Editor Jeff Stein writes SpyTalk from Washington. He can be reached confidentially via spytalk[at]hushmail.com.