Is Israeli intelligence no longer trusted in Washington?

The relationship between the Israeli intelligence community and its American counterpart has worsened since President Joe Biden took office, senior Israeli analysts tell JNS.

By Maayan Hoffman, JNS

Is Israeli intelligence no longer trusted in the corridors of power in Washington, D.C.?

That would appear to be the case, judging from comments made last week by U.S. State Department Spokesperson Ned Price at a press briefing.

Senior Israeli analysts told JNS that the relationship between the Israeli intelligence community and its American counterpart has worsened since President Joe Biden took office.

“It is going in a bad direction,” said Yonatan Freeman, an international relations expert at Hebrew University of Jerusalem. “Biden has changed the tune on Israel.”

Last week, Israeli security forces raided the offices of seven NGOs in Ramallah. They reportedly confiscated dozens of documents, printers and computers. The military sealed the office doors and posted notices that declared the groups illegal.

In Oct. 2021, Israel designated six of the NGOs as affiliated with the terrorist group the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP): Al-Haq, Addameer, the Bisan Center, the Defense for Children International-Palestine, the Union of Agricultural Work Committees and the Union of Palestinian Women’s Committees. The seventh, the Union of Health Work Committees, was so designated in January 2020.

Last week, Israel ratified the designation of three of the NGOs as terrorist organizations. The Israeli Defense Ministry said in a statement that these groups acted under the guise of humanitarian and other activities, but in fact were intended to advance the goals of the PFLP, including recruitment of operatives and fundraising.

The ministry said that the NGOs are “controlled by the PFLP, employ PFLP operatives in management and field positions and operate to conceal their affiliation with the terrorist organization out of fear of the security agencies in Israel and in the countries in which they raise funds.”

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But on Thursday, Price said that “senior level” U.S. officials were “concerned” about the Israeli security forces’ closure of the NGOs’ offices.

“We will continue to seek additional information and to convey our concern directly and privately to our Israeli partners,” said Price. He added that Washington had made clear to Jerusalem that “independent civil society organizations in the West Bank and Israel must be able to continue their important work. Civil society is … an integral element to thriving democracies the world over, and of course that applies here.”

Price stressed that the United States reviewed Israeli intelligence in October and did not make any similar designations, and that to date nothing had changed.

On Wednesday, the U.K. daily The Guardian leaked a CIA report that claimed the agency was unable to find any evidence to support Israel’s designation of the NGOs as connected to terror.

“The CIA report ‘doesn’t say that the groups are guilty of anything,’” one source told the British newspaper.

Pushback by the United States came on the heels of a joint statement issued last month by nine European Union states that said they too did not feel the Israeli evidence was sufficient and they would continue to fund the NGOs.

Progressive pressure has impact

Mounting pressure inside the United States from progressive members of Congress and their supporters has also forced the Biden administration to publicly contradict Israel so as to seem more balanced, Freeman contended.

“The U.S. has been under extreme pressure to really change its view on the conflict,” he said.

Immediately after the raid, several U.S. lawmakers and human rights organizations came out against the Israeli military and called on the Biden administration to take action.

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A letter disseminated by Human Rights Watch and signed by 10 like-minded NGOs on Monday called Israeli actions “an assault on the basic human rights of Palestinians to assemble and organize freely and an example of the Israeli government’s weaponization of ‘counterterrorism laws’ in its relentless attacks against civil society activists.”

The letter asked the United States to take “immediate steps to support the Palestinian civil society organizations.” The steps included a meeting with representatives of the groups, an open rejection of the Israeli designations, a demand that Israel reverse the designations and the suspension of military assistance to Israel.

“The Biden Administration is effectively acquiescing to repressive attacks on Palestinian civil society,” the letter stated.

In a seven-thread tweet directed toward the Biden administration, Lara Friedman, president of the Foundation for Middle East Peace and a former head of Americans for Peace Now, charged that the president took a “politically and morally cowardly approach of staying silent—an approach that amounts to foreign policy gross negligence/complicity.”

Democratic lawmakers, such as Rep. Andre Carson (D-Ind.) and Rep. Betty McCollum (D-Minn.), called on the administration to “condemn” the raid.

Among the most vocal critics was Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.), who has a long history of attacks on Israel. She published an open letter to the administration that said, “The apartheid government moved to shut down human rights organizations at the core in fighting for the lives, liberties and freedoms of millions of Palestinians.

“These acts are a direct result of the Biden administration’s complete failure to defend Palestinian human rights against racism and ethnic cleansing. The silence of our country is enabling more death and violence. We must hold Israel accountable.”

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U.S. indecision helps groups continue fundraising

Price clarified that the United States has never funded any of the designated NGOs, but a spokesperson for the watchdog group NGO Monitor told JNS that the question is not one of funding, but of providing legitimacy.

The NGOs are feeders of information to the State Department, whose officials are influenced by such anti-Israel messaging, he said.

Moreover, the money these NGOs raise in the United States constitutes a “major percentage” of their annual budgets, he added.

“If indeed America would have agreed that these organizations are linked to terrorism, it would have affected their ability to raise funds in America or to have funds sent from America by those who support their cause,” he said.

Nevertheless, it remains possible that supporters of Israel have read too much into Price’s statement that “the evidence Israel provided is not good enough,” noted Dr. Emmanuel Navon of Tel Aviv University’s School of Political Science. “It is unclear at this point why the United States is saying that the evidence is not convincing,” he said.

Price noted in his talk that Israel would provide additional evidence in the near future to back up its actions. He added that Israel told the United States it had met its “high bar” to take action against civil society organizations.

In the meantime, Navon stressed that Israel should “stand its ground” and make clear that it will not allow these NGOs’ activities to continue even if its allies and partners disagree.

“If we have evidence, we have evidence,” he said. “It is legitimate to take action against NGOs that undermine our security.”