By Paul Richter and Batsheva Sobelman, Tribune Washington Bureau (TNS)
WASHINGTON — U.S. relations with Israel appeared to plunge to a new low this week with Obama administration charges that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government has leaked secrets to undermine American efforts to negotiate a nuclear deal with Iran.
With tension already high over Netanyahu’s plans to castigate the U.S. policy on Iran in a speech to a joint session of Congress on March 3, White House and State Department officials publicly complained that Israeli officials had disclosed sensitive details from private U.S. briefings to publicly attack the American negotiating position.
U.S. officials initially had denied reports that the administration was withholding details from Israel of the closed-door talks with Iran. That changed Wednesday into a blunt rebuke of one of America’s closest allies.
“Not everything you are hearing from the Israeli government is an accurate reflection of the talks,” Jen Psaki, a State Department spokeswoman, told reporters. She said the administration has begun “a selective sharing of information” with Israel as a result.
White House press secretary Josh Earnest complained of “a continued practice of cherry-picking specific pieces of information and using them out of context to distort the negotiating position of the United States.”
Netanyahu fired back Thursday, saying Israel understands the problem all too well.
“I think this is a bad agreement that is dangerous for the state of Israel,” he said at the Public Security Ministry in Lod, Israel.
His chief opponent in Israel’s March 17 elections quickly seized on the administration’s comments.
Isaac Herzog, Netanyahu’s main rival for prime minister, said in a Facebook post that “the U.S. administration says he leaks, lies and distorts information from within the negotiations with Iran. All for his seat. Simply unbelievable. … They too have lost all trust in him.”
The U.S. and five other powers — Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China — have spent more than a year trying to persuade Tehran to give up enough of its enrichment program to prevent it from building nuclear weapons. In exchange for strict monitoring and limits, the West would ease and ultimately lift economic sanctions on Tehran.
Negotiators have given themselves until the end of March to work out a framework and set a June 30 deadline to complete a deal.
President Barack Obama’s relations with Netanyahu have been rocky for years, but the White House did not hide its displeasure last month when it learned that the prime minister had accepted an invitation from House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-OH) to speak to Congress about his concerns.
Obama later said he would not meet with Netanyahu because it would be inappropriate so close to the March 17 elections. Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State John F. Kerry plan to be out of town, and a scattering of Democratic lawmakers have said they will skip the speech in protest.
Aaron David Miller, a former U.S. diplomat who was a Mideast peace negotiator, said U.S.-Israeli friction has ebbed and flowed over the years but “I’ve seen nothing remotely like this.”
Joseph Cirincione, the president of Ploughshares Fund, an arms control advocacy group that supports the negotiations with Iran, said administration officials view the Israeli leaks as a breach of trust.
“They see the Israelis given access to the most sensitive part of the negotiations, like no other allies, and then using that information to blast the administration,” he said. “You can see why they feel betrayed. … I can’t remember a case where a U.S. ally has done something like this.”
Cirincione said U.S. officials were annoyed that Israel had allegedly disclosed that Iran might be permitted to keep 6,500 or more of its 19,000 centrifuges. Centrifuges are machines that create enriched uranium, which at high grades can be used as bomb fuel.
Cirincione said he believed the figures were correct. But the leaks did not say that in exchange, Iran would make concessions aimed at limiting its total output and inventory of enriched uranium.
Netanyahu contends that world powers should permit no Iranian enrichment; the U.S. and the five other countries are willing to accept limited enrichment.
Analysts said the administration’s rare public denunciation of Israel may have an important secondary goal of deterring Israeli officials from disclosing further details that could sink the talks before the June 30 deadline.
It’s unclear how much damage the rift will do to the U.S.-Israeli relationship.
Some analysts and Israel advocates argue that the relationship has deeply rooted bipartisan backing, and the current fight is unlikely to halt America’s robust diplomatic, financial and military support for Israel. Military support has grown even during the contentious six years of the Obama administration.
But there are signs that U.S. public support for Israel could dwindle over the long term because younger Americans don’t feel the same loyalty as their elders.
A CNN/ORC poll released Tuesday found that 56 percent of Americans 50 or older believe the U.S. should remain impartial in the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. The figure jumps to 75 percent for Americans younger than 50.
The poll also showed that 63 percent of Americans think Boehner should not have invited Netanyahu to address Congress on an issue of U.S. policy. Only 33 percent thought it was the right thing to do.
(Staff writer Richter reported from Washington and special correspondent Sobelman from Jerusalem.)
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