JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israel has dismissed its deputy ambassador in Washington over an alleged 2009 media leak about secret discussions involving the United States, diplomatic sources said on Wednesday.
They said Dan Arbell, former deputy director for North American affairs at Israel's Foreign Ministry, had been removed after security investigators cleared another senior diplomat who had been implicated in the case.
Israel's bedrock alliance with the United States has been bolstered by common concern about Iran's nuclear program, yet cracks have appeared as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Barack Obama disagreed on how to pursue Israeli-Palestinian peace.
Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Ilana Stein said: "A senior official is being returned after his tenure was brought to an end." She described the move as unusual, but declined to elaborate on the circumstances or the identity of the official.
A diplomatic source said the alleged leak was to an Israeli reporter in early 2009, the year when Obama took office in January and Netanyahu in March.
The previous suspect in the case, Alon Bar, served at the time as the Foreign Ministry's deputy director for strategic affairs, a role devoted largely to monitoring Iran. Following a suspension, he was appointed ambassador to Spain.
Israeli commentators voiced concern about press freedom under the conservative coalition government, whose foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, is an ultranationalist with a penchant for tough talk and policy spats with Netanyahu.
"Danny Arbell, one of the most seasoned and highly-esteemed figures in Israel's foreign service (and there aren't many in that category, believe me), is ousted in disgrace," wrote Ben Caspit in the mass-circulation daily Maariv.
"An attempt is under way here to instill fear, an attempt is under way here to deter people from talking to journalists."
Israeli media published closed-door comments last year by the ambassador to Washington, Michael Oren, describing "a crisis of historic proportions" in ties after the Obama administration censured Jewish settlement in the occupied West Bank.
Netanyahu has described such reports as overblown, noting Obama's public support for Israel's military build-up and, last month, its diplomatic campaign against a Palestinian bid to sidestep stalled peacemaking by appealing for U.N. membership.
Some Israeli career diplomats have chafed under Lieberman, whom Netanyahu has sidelined in contacts with the United States and other key allies. The Moldovan-born Lieberman has focused his activities on eastern Europe, Latin America, and Africa.
Arbell's profile on the website of the Washington mission describes almost 20 years of foreign service dealing mostly with North America. He is married and has four children.
(Editing by Alistair Lyon)