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Israel's denial of Iran nuclear talks spying draws scrutiny

Israel is emphatically denying a report that it spied on the Iran nuclear talks - apparently getting information that the Obama administration did not want Israel to know

Their denial raises questions about Israel's credibility: Would Israel obey some unwritten code of gentlemanly behavior and not use its espionage capabilities for this; or would Israeli leaders find it vital - almost a case of national life or death - to find out if the United States and other Western countries intended to let Iran retain much of its nuclear potential?

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's office in Jerusalem said the report -- which appeared in the Wall Street Journal and was headlined "Israel Spied on Iran Talks - Ally's Snooping Upset White House Because Information was Used to Lobby Congress to Try to Sink a Deal" -- is "utterly false."

The key word in the denial, however, may be the word "against."

Here is what Netanyahu's spokesman declared: "The State of Israel does not conduct espionage against the United States or Israel's other allies."

In the experience of people who have been researching and closely observing Israel's intelligence agencies for decades, Israeli officials do not consider it a hostile act -- "against" the U.S. -- to try to determine, by all possible means, what the United States and other nations are doing.

The general theme of Israeli behavior is the belief that the tiny country - population 8 million - is surrounded by enemies in a volatile region. Israeli soldiers and espionage operatives are frequently lectured that their nation's back is against the wall.

Israel, in this mentality, often has to do things that other nations might not do. As with covert operations by the espionage agencies of all countries, the highest concern is generally, "Don't get caught."

The WSJ report contains a few nuggets that spotlight the twisted moral code of espionage.

The report says the White House was not very upset about discovering that Israel was scooping up secret information - whether by electronic surveillance, human assets in the negotiating teams, or private conversations with French and other participants.

"The White House has largely tolerated Israeli snooping on U.S. policy makers," the article says, adding that Israel is tolerant about the U.S. doing the same kind of political espionage.

The Journal's Adam Entous writes that what upset the Obama team was "Israel's sharing of inside information with U.S. lawmakers and others to drain support" from the nuclear negotiations.

How did the Americans find out about this "spying operation"? Of course, it seems, by hearing from members of Congress who were concerned about where the Iran negotiations were heading - and the White House quickly determined that the version Congress was hearing was a detailed Israeli interpretation.

But don't miss this irony: The U.S. confirmed, supposedly, that Israel was spying - by spying on the Israelis.

As the Journal puts it: "U.S. intelligence agencies monitored Israel's communications to see if the country knew of the negotiations" - referring to America's secret talks with Iran, before the start of formal negotiations that brought in Britain, France, Germany, Russia, and China.

The article suggests that if Israel used its electronic interception abilities - which are among the best in the world, according to longtime intelligence officers - to monitor the talks with Iran, communications involving the European countries were probably more vulnerable than official U.S. e-mails, diplomatic cables, and phone conversations.

Israeli sources told the newspaper that much of the data being sought can be obtained "by targeting Iranians and others in the region who are communicating with countries in the talks."

Why have these allegations - which basically seem credible - been leaked now? The Obama Administration seems to be on a verbal warpath against the newly reelected Netanyahu.

Israel's prime minister tried to walk back his remarks that seemed to reject a two-state solution with the Palestinians - and then he apologized for railing against Israeli Arabs voting "in droves" as a danger - but administration officials in Washington are practically ignoring the walk-backs.

The Israeli defense minister, Moshe Ya'alon, said - according to Haaretz - there is "no way" Israeli espionage agencies spied on the Americans.

He said someone is leaking this kind of story in order to do damage to the military and intelligence ties with America that continue to be strong. "It's a shame," said Ya'alon, "that such winds are blowing into the clandestine channels in which we conduct this relationship."

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Dan Raviv is host of the CBS News Weekend Roundup and co-author of Spies Against Armageddon: Inside Israel's Secret Wars. He blogs at IsraelSpy.com.

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    Dan Raviv is a correspondent for CBS Radio News based in Washington, host of CBS News Weekend Roundup, and co-author of "Spies Against Armageddon: Inside Israel's Secret Wars"