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Obama White House accuses Israel of spying to undermine Iran talks (+video)

The already poor relationship between the Obama administration and the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu looks set to get worse, with Iran nuclear talks nearing an important deadline at the end of the month.

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    President Obama meets with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington, Sept. 30, 2013. Despite Netanyahu's speech to Congress, his efforts to halt the Iranian nuclear program which he describes as the mission of his lifetime appear to be stumbling as the US seems to move toward a deal with the Islamic Republic.
    Charles Dharapak/AP/File
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Members of the Obama White House are alleging that Israel has not only been spying on nuclear negotiations with Iran but has been using the information gleaned to undermine the efforts of the United States

The already strained relationship between the White House and the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu took a nosedive after the Israeli leader spoke to Congress on Iran, a move the White House felt was designed to undermine the president's efforts. Then, during campaigning for elections last week that will almost certainly see Mr. Netanyahu lead Israel's next coalition, he vowed never to allow a Palestinian state to emerge on his watch – undermining the premise of the so-called Israeli-Palestinian peace process. 

Obama's frustration can now be seen in a greater willingness to place stories critical of Israel in the press.

Unnamed White House officials, the Wall Street Journal reported on Monday, say Israeli spies eavesdropped on the Iran nuclear talks as part of an effort to upend moves toward sanctions relief for Iran in exchange for a reduction in the scope of its program. US officials are most upset by Israel’s efforts to upset the talks by using the information gained from the spying in Netanyahu’s speech to Congress earlier this month.

"It is one thing for the US and Israel to spy on each other. It is another thing for Israel to steal US secrets and play them back to US legislators to undermine US diplomacy," an unnamed senior White House official said in the report.

Israel denies the allegations, saying it gained the information through monitoring Iranian leaders and other sources. A senior official in Netanyahu's office called the accusations “utterly false.”

News of the espionage broke the same day as the White House criticized Netanyahu for his pre-election vow to oppose an independent Palestinian state, a statement he has since tried to walk back.

“We cannot simply pretend that those comments were never made, or that they don’t raise questions about the prime minister’s commitment to achieving peace through direct negotiations,” White House chief of staff Denis McDonough told a meeting of American pro-Israel lobbyists.

Relations between the two countries have noticeably cooled over the Iran issue. Netanyahu steadfastly opposes any sanctions concessions to Iran, and instead wants the US to increase the financial pressure. In early March, Netanyahu broke protocol when he accepted a Republican invitation to address Congress without notifying the White House first.

Republican House Speaker John Boehner last week announced that he would lead a group of lawmakers to Israel at the end of March, around the same time as the current deadline for a preliminary agreement between Iran and the world powers negotiating with the Islamic Republic – the US, UK, France, Germany, Russia, and China.

Foreign Policy’s David Francis writes that Boehner's visit could show up Obama and deepen the political divides over already tense international negotiations.

But the partisan nature of the trip is hard to ignore, as it further cements Republicans and Netanyahu as allies determined to sink an agreement between world powers and Tehran.

… Boehner’s visit is a win-win: If the talks fail, he and Netanyahu will have a forum to tell Israelis and Americans it was a bad idea from the start and to blast Obama for pursuing it. If a deal is reached, the speaker can make the case that it won’t last beyond the end of the president’s second term while arguing that it would allow Iran to develop nuclear weapons and threaten America’s most important ally in the Middle East.

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