JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu moved on Sunday to avoid friction with the United States over allegations it spied on Israeli leaders, slapping down demands in his cabinet to press Washington for redress.
Several Israeli cabinet members and lawmakers latched onto the reported U.S. espionage as an opportunity to call on Washington to free jailed Israeli agent Jonathan Pollard.
Allegations of U.S. spying on Israelis emerged on Friday based on documents leaked by former U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) contractor Edward Snowden.
Pollard, a former U.S. Navy intelligence analyst, was sentenced to a life term in 1987 in the United States for spying for Israel. A succession of U.S. presidents have spurned Israeli calls for his pardon.
“The United States is systematically spying against Israel’s political and security leadership,” said Transport Minister Yisrael Katz, demanding a U.S. commitment to stop the espionage and to release Pollard immediately.
His demand was echoed by Uzi Landau, the tourism minister, who told reporters: “If there was ever a better time to bring Pollard here, it is now.”
But Netanyahu, attempting to calm the clamour, said in public remarks at the weekly cabinet meeting that Israel didn’t need “any special occasion” in order to discuss Pollard’s case with Washington.
He said he had constantly raised the issue at the White House and hoped “circumstances arise that will enable us to bring Jonathan home”.
“This does not depend on and is not linked to the latest events,” Netanyahu added, stopping short of any direct reference to the leaked documents.
The papers showed the NSA and its British counterpart GCHQ had in 2009 targeted an email address listed as belonging to then-Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and monitored emails of senior defence officials.
Israeli Strategic Affairs Minister Yuval Steinitz described the alleged espionage as “unacceptable” but he also said Israel had always assumed that even its allies spied on it.
A statement issued by Olmert’s office, said the reports, if accurate, referred to a public email address and that chances that any security or intelligence damage had been caused were minuscule.
Reporting by Jeffrey Heller; Editing by Peter Graff