CAIRO — Israeli officials knew they were being kept in the dark as the U.S. conducted secret talks with Iran, and the knowledge that the White House was "going behind Israel's back" was one of the key sources of tension between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Barack Obama, according to a senior Israeli minister and other Israeli officials.
"We did not know from the beginning, but we knew, we had intelligence that these meetings were happening," said the Israeli minister, who spoke to BuzzFeed by phone from his Jerusalem office. He said that a "friend in the Gulf" shared intelligence with Israel that the meetings were taking place, and urged Israel to find out more. "I would like to say we knew the content of the talks, but we didn't. What we knew was that the U.S. was choosing not to tell us about them and that was very worrying."
That "friend," one foreign ministry official said, was Saudi Arabia, which along with Israel has most strongly objected to the nuclear deal reached between Iran and the West over the weekend.
Senior Israeli cabinet minister Silvan Shalom was asked about the secret talks on Israel's national radio Sunday, and appeared to confirm that Israel had found out about the talks through its own means. When asked what Israel knew and when, Shalom answered: "It is not important whether or not we were informed. What is important is if we knew, and we did know."
One Israeli lawmaker from Netanyahu's party said that Israel's leadership was "furious ... we felt like we were being stabbed in the back."
"There was never a great love or warmth between Obama and Netanyahu but after we confirmed that they were seeking to hide talks with Iran from us there was distrust and suspicion in the relationship," said the lawmaker.
U.S. officials told AP that the discussions were kept hidden even from the U.S.'s closest friends, including its negotiating partners and Israel, until two months ago, and that may explain how the nuclear accord appeared to come together so quickly after years of stalemate and fierce hostility between Iran and the West.
Omani officials confirmed to BuzzFeed that at least one of the meetings between U.S. and Iranian officials happened in Oman. Oman's Sultan Qaboos was also a key player in helping President Obama ferry a letter to Iranian officials earlier this year.
Obama only decided to inform Netanyahu of the talks when the two met in the White House on Sept. 30, and on that occasion only briefed him on two of the talks held.
Following that meeting, both Obama and Netanyahu made a brief statement to reporters, but refused to take questions.
Netanyahu said at the time that while he appreciated Obama's diplomacy on Iran, he still felt that a credible military threat needed to remain on the table.
"Iran is committed to Israel's destruction. So for Israel, the ultimate test of a future agreement with Iran is whether or not Iran dismantles its military nuclear program. We have a saying in Hebrew, we call it mivchan hatotza'a — you would say it in English, what's the bottom line? And the bottom line, again, is that Iran fully dismantles its military nuclear program," said Netanyahu. "I also believe that if diplomacy is to work, those pressures must be kept in place. And I think that they should not be lessened until there is verifiable success. And, in fact, it is Israel's firm belief that if Iran continues to advance its nuclear program during negotiations, the sanctions should be strengthened. It's the combination, I believe, that has guided your policy and our policy so far, that is good credible military threat and strong sanctions I think is still the only formula that can get a peaceful resolution of this problem."
An aide in the prime minister's office told BuzzFeed that Netanyahu's comments that day sent a careful message to Obama, and that he was already concerned that a deal was in the works that Israel would object to.
Sheera Frenkel is a cybersecurity correspondent for BuzzFeed News based in San Francisco. She has reported from Israel, Egypt, Jordan and across the Middle East. Her secure PGP fingerprint is 4A53 A35C 06BE 5339 E9B6 D54E 73A6 0F6A E252 A50F
Contact Sheera Frenkel at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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