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Report: US Spied on Israel During Iran Negotiations

By VOA News &

A U.S. newspaper is reporting that the United States spied on communications of Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, although President Barack Obama promised two years ago to curtail eavesdropping on friendly heads of state. The Wall Street Journal reported that President Barack Obama decided to secretly keep certain allies under close watch, with Netanyahu topping the list.

The report said the U.S., while pursuing a landmark nuclear arms deal with Iran, captured communications between Netanyahu and his aides. Intercepting the conversations "inflamed mistrust between the two countries and planted a political minefield at home when Netanyahu later took his campaign against the [nuclear] deal to Capitol Hill," the report said.

The Wall Street Journal said the U.S. targeting of Israeli leaders and officials also intercepted their private conversations with U.S. lawmakers and American-Jewish groups. That move raised fears that the White House would be accused of spying on Congress, according to an unidentified senior U.S. official quoted in the report.

The report said White House officials believed the intercepted information could be valuable to countering Netanyahu's campaign of opposing the Iranian nuclear deal. The Israeli leader argued before Congress that the agreement would ease Iran's path to building a nuclear weapon. The deal, signed in July between Iran and six world powers, is aimed at curbing Iran's atomic program, in exchange for lifting international sanctions on the country's economy.

The chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Rep. Devin Nunes (R-CA) said Wednesday his committee will look into the White House's spying on Israel. Speaking to The Associated Press, Nunes said he had asked the director of National Intelligence and the head of the National Security Agency to come to Capitol Hill next week to brief lawmakers on the matter.

He said his goal would be to "get the facts" about the situation. "We're going to play this right down the middle and determine whether or not somebody did something wrong," Nunes told AP by phone from California.

The White House declined to comment on specific intelligence activities carried out by the U.S. But White House officials said the U.S. doesn't spy overseas unless there's a specific, validated national security reason to do so, emphasizing that the principle applies both to world leaders and regular citizens.

Earlier on Wednesday, Likud ministers responded angrily to the report and demanded that Israel protest Washington's action. "If the information that was published is shown to be true, Israel should submit an official protest to the American administration, and demand that it stop all activity of this sort," Transportation and Intelligence Minister Yisrael Katz stated.

Immigrant Absorption Minister Ze'ev Elkin said the report highlighted the hypocrisy of the White House in its harsh treatment of convicted Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard. "Precisely on the background of the spying, in opposition to the official declaration that they stopped listening in on friendly states, their stubbornness on the case of (Jonathan) Pollard, the limitations on him and the refusal to bring him to Israel seem even more unacceptable," Elkin said. Netanyahu's office, as well as the spokesman of the foreign ministry, declined to comment on the report.

Russian Air Strikes May Open Syrian-Hizbullah Door to Israeli Border

By DEBKAfile

Israel's military and political leaders became intensely anxious when they saw how concentrated Russian air strikes were swiftly dislodging anti-Assad rebels from southern Syria and beginning to open the door for the Syrian and Hizbullah armies to come dangerously close to the Israeli border.

DEBKAfile's military and intelligence sources report that Russian air strikes in other parts of the country have tapered off. Instead, heavy Russian bombardments are giving the combined Syrian-Hizbullah force its first chance to recover Sheikh Maskin, the southern town housing the Syrian Army's 82nd Brigade which has been passing from hand to hand for months. If the rebels lose that fierce battle, the way will be clear for the combined pro-Assad force to advance on the two key southern towns, Deraa and Quneitra on the Golan.

The rebel groups assaulted by the Russian air force Tuesday included moderate, pro-Western, pro-Israeli militias, such as the Southern Front and the First Column. Both suffered heavy casualties. IDF unease as a result of Russia's aerial intervention in the fighting in southern Syria is rising in proportion to the current military tensions with Hizbullah.

If the Lebanese Shiite terrorists manage to get the late Samir Quntar's anti-Israel terror Front for the Liberation of Golan up and running, the Israeli air force would be severely hampered in launching its own strikes against this enemy by the dozens of Russian bombers using the same patch of sky without pause.

On the face of it, Moscow and Jerusalem have made a show of their smooth air force collaboration in Syrian air space. But this picture is wide of the situation: The Russian air force omitted to notify Israel ahead of its massive bombardment close to its border Tuesday.

Some Israeli official circles suspect that Moscow is deliberately bringing Israel under pressure to accept a deal for southern Syria. One of President Vladimir Putin's main objects from the outset of Russian's military buildup in Syria was to eradicate the rebels in the South and the threat they posed to the Assad regime in Damascus.

More than once, Putin suggested to Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu that they work out a Russian-Israeli deal for that part of Syria. The Israeli leader was unresponsive, mainly because Israel is bound by prior understandings to coordination with the US, Jordan and moderate Syrian rebel groups. A deal with Moscow would counter those understandings. However, The concentrated air strikes in the border region is intended by the Kremlin, according to some views, not just to push the rebels out, but to twist Israel's arm for settling the issue with Moscow.

Israel Cracks Down on Islamic State Volunteers

By Reuters

Ayoob Kara, a deputy Israeli Cabinet minister, used to double as an unofficial intermediary with the few of his fellow Arab citizens who have left to join Islamic State insurgents in Syria or Iraq. Negotiating discreetly through relatives and go-betweens, he would offer them reduced jail terms if they returned to Israel, cooperated with security services and helped deter other would-be Islamic State recruits by publicly disavowing the group.

Six volunteers took the deal, Kara said. But with the number of Islamic State sympathizers in Israel growing from its initial trickle, and some accused of trying to set up armed cells within the country's 18% Muslim minority, the deputy minister no longer sounds so accommodating.

"I used to work hard to dissuade people from joining ISIS, but now I say that there's no point," he told Reuters in an interview, using an acronym for the insurgents. If, by this point, when the dangers are abundantly clear to everyone, they still want to go, then they are beyond saving and it's a one-way ticket for them. It's literally a dead end."

Kara, a confidant of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, was expressing a hardening of government policy against Islamic State, which, though preoccupied with battling Syrian and Iraqi regime forces, has recently inveighed against Israel. "Jews, soon you shall hear from us in Palestine, which will become your grave," promised a Dec. 26 voice recording on social media attributed to Islamic State chief Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

In October, two video clips surfaced in which Islamic State gunmen threatened to strike Israel. They spoke in near-fluent, Arabic-accented Hebrew, suggesting they were among the several dozen Israeli Arabs who the Shin Bet domestic intelligence service estimates having joined the group abroad.

Israel sees a major cross-border attack on it by Islamic State as unlikely. But it is less sanguine about support for the group inside Israel, which is already beset by Palestinian street violence that has surged in the last three months, stoked in part by strife over a contested Jerusalem mosque complex. "It [Islamic State influence] is beginning to spread here as well," Intelligence Ministry director-general Ram Ben-Barak told Israel's Army Radio on Sunday. "The ISIS scenario we worry about is ISIS cells arising in Israel to carry out terrorist attacks."

Among Israel's Muslim minority, pro-Palestinian sympathies are common but political violence rare. Still, a series of spectacular incidents involving Israelis and Islamic State has unsettled the Shin Bet.

One Arab citizen who had volunteered to serve in Israel's army later defected to the insurgents' ranks in Syria, it emerged this month — a blow for a military that regards itself as a sectarian melting pot in the Jewish-majority country.

Israeli legislation introduced in December 2014 that would raise the maximum jail sentence for joining foreign groups like Islamic State to five years is still under parliamentary review. "It has taken time for the monstrousness of ISIS to dawn, so while Israel is seeking greater penalties for joining it, this had been taking time too," said Abu Hussein, who also heads the Israeli Arab civil rights group Adalah. Abu Hussein said the Shin Bet appeared to be refocusing its anti-Islamic State efforts on social media activity by Arab citizens that might flag up nascent sympathizers for arrest.

According to Kara, the value to Israeli intelligence of Arab citizens who came back from Islamic State's fiefdoms had waned — meaning any returnees had less to bargain with for clemency. "There was a time when someone would come back and provide useful information on their camps and recruitment, et cetera, But that's in the past now. The whole world is fighting Islamic State and everything is pretty much known."

Novel Banned from Israeli Schools Because of Assimilation Fear


Israel's Education Ministry has disqualified a novel which depicts a romance between an Israeli woman and a Palestinian man from use in high schools across the country, Ha'aretz reported Wednesday.

Dorit Rabinyan's "Gader Haya" (known in English as "Borderlife") was rejected because of the need to maintain "the identity and heritage of students in every sector" and the belief that "intimate relations between Jews and non-Jews threatens the separate identity."

Concern that "young people of adolescent age don't have the systemic view that includes considerations involving maintaining the identity of people and the significance of assimilation" was also cited as a reason for the novel's disqualification.

According to Ha'aretz, the book was rejected in spite of the fact the official responsible for teaching literature in secular state schools, in addition to a committee of academics, recommended adding the book to the advanced class' syllabus at the request of several teachers. However, two senior Education Ministry officials, Eliraz Kraus, who is in charge of "society and humanity" studies, and Dalia Fenig, the acting chair of the pedagogic secretariat, both opposed the move.

"Many parents in the public education system will be strongly opposed to their son/daughter studying [this] novel, and they will see it as an attack on the contract of trust between parents and the educational system," Fenig explained. "It should be remembered the choice of what creative work to teach is the teacher's and not the students'. Intimate relations and certainly the open option of institutionalization via marriage and raising a family - even if this does not happen in the story - between Jews and non-Jews is seen among many communities in society as a threat to the separate identity."

Two British Teens Headed to Trial over Auschwitz Theft

By & AFP

Two British teenagers, fined in June on charges of stealing artifacts from the Nazi death camp at Auschwitz, will now face trial for the same offense, a Polish prosecutor said Wednesday.

The two, back in England, were given one-year probation along with the fine after pleading guilty in June, and then released by Polish authorities. But they have since reversed their plea to not guilty, prompting the new charges, said Mariusz Slomka from the prosecutor's office in Oswiecim, the southern city where the Auschwitz camp is located.

If found guilty, they could face up to 10 years in prison for "stealing objects of historical value," said Slomka. He said the "charges were delivered Tuesday to the court in the city of Krakow," in southern Poland.

Born in 1997 and 1998, the boys - both minors - were students at the Perse School, a private facility near Cambridge in southern England. They were detained in June near barracks where the prisoners' personal items used to be sorted, Pawel Sawicki, spokesman for a museum at the Polish site, said at the time. "The guards saw them dig in the ground. They detained them and discovered that they were in possession of shards of glass, buttons, a hair clipper and bits of metal," he said.

After the incident, the Perse School said the two pupils admitted taking items of historical important that they "found on the ground", and said there would be a "full and thorough investigation." The boys were fined 240 Euros ($262), released and left Poland in June.

This was not the first time someone has tried to smuggle out a piece of the former death camp, which has become a symbol of the Holocaust and is visited by more than a million people from across the world each year. Several people have tried to make off with barbed wire, while one particularly brazen gang walked out with the camp's infamous "Arbeit macht frei" ("Work makes you free") sign in 2009.

The mastermind of that theft, Swedish neo-Nazi Anders Hoegstroem, was jailed for two-and-a-half years. The metal sign was eventually recovered cut up into three pieces, leading museum officials to display a replica above the entrance.

One million European Jews died at the camp set up by Nazi Germany in occupied Poland in 1940-1945. More than 100,000 others including non-Jewish Poles, Roma, Soviet prisoners of war and anti-Nazi resistance fighters also died there, according to the museum.

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