Israel’s appetite for intelligence is driven by the survival instinct of a nation surrounded by enemies, and whose suspicions can be quickly aroused by any US dealings with its neighbours to which it is not party. The US, for its part, spies on Israel for similar reasons, to gain prior knowledge of any unilateral action it might plan (an attack on Iran, for instance) that could jeopardise US interests.
The new claims coincide with stalled efforts by Israel to secure admission to the US visa waiver programme, from which 38 countries currently benefit. Hitherto, the assumption was that two issues were causing the hold-up on Capitol Hill: accusations of discrimination against Arab- and Muslim-Americans seeking entry to Israel, and a growing number of young Israelis who overstay tourist visas and work illegally in the US. Now, however, a third problem looms at least as large – the worry of US national security agencies that any loosening would make it easier for Israeli spies to enter the country.
On the face of it, the delay is still surprising, given the legendary influence that the Israel lobby wields among US lawmakers (influence that once prompted the right-wing gadfly and former presidential candidate Pat Buchanan to describe Capitol Hill as “Israeli-occupied territory”).
But if spying is involved, such influence would seem to have its limits. “They thought they could just snap their fingers,” a Congressional staffer told Newsweek, and Israel’s friends would get the business done, bypassing the immigration authorities and the Department of Homeland Security. But not so.