What Israel Makes of Trump’s Intel Gaffe

President Trump with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel at the White House in February. Credit Stephen Crowley/The New York Times
President Trump with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel at the White House in February. Credit Stephen Crowley/The New York Times

On Monday, The Washington Post reported that President Trump had disclosed highly classified intelligence to senior Russian officials in a meeting at the White House last week. The intelligence had come from an American ally in the Middle East that had not given permission for such sharing, breaching a cardinal rule of intelligence cooperation among allies. On Tuesday, we learned that this ally was Israel, and that the intelligence reportedly involved information about Islamic State plots to blow up airliners with bombs planted in laptops.

The specific accuracy of these press reports is a secondary issue. The primary issue is the affront to protocol, as well as reported concern for the safety of the intelligence source, which was compounded by the impression that the leak came from a witless leader oblivious to the gravitas of his office. Or worse, that Mr. Trump might be a “useful idiot,” sucking up to a wily and authoritarian Moscow regime that serves as his role model.

To be sure, leaders, including Israeli ones, do on rare occasion leak classified information. And they have the authority to do so. Often, such leaks reflect a conscious political calculation that the potential reward justifies any possible damage. In such circumstances, the intelligence community simply has to roll with the punches.

This instance, however, does not appear to reflect this sort of considered decision making. We can only hope that when confronted with the damage to American interests from this leak, Mr. Trump will learn to be more careful.

So what is the likely fallout? As a rule, where allies like the United States and Israel share so many vital interests, the partners have no alternative but to absorb the damage from the leak and continue to share intelligence. This is doubly true for Israel, in view of its considerable strategic dependency on American support.

But this event did not come entirely out of the blue for Israel. Back in January, there were reports that American intelligence officials had warned their Israeli counterparts of the risk that Mr. Trump might pass on their intelligence to the Russians. Since that warning has apparently been vindicated, the strategic ramifications both for the United States and for Israel are far-reaching.

One complication is all the attention on the investigation in Washington into possible collusion between the Trump presidential campaign and the Kremlin. Mr. Trump’s decision to fire the F.B.I. director, James Comey, has only intensified the concerns and suspicions. One of the concerns for Israel and the United States is whether the president’s disclosure of top-secret information to the Russian foreign minister and ambassador should be interpreted as a continuing connivance with Moscow.

A second complication concerns relations between Russia and Israel. Mindful of the potential hazards created by the civil war in Syria, the two countries already maintain close contact and consult on tactical issues of mutual interest. Indeed, for all we know, it is possible that Israel had already shared the intelligence leaked by Mr. Trump directly with the Russians.

However, Israel and Russia do not by any means agree on all Syria-related issues, and here, Israel may soon need Mr. Trump’s good offices in Moscow. Russia, in alliance with Iran, has rescued the Assad regime from likely defeat at the hands of a variety of Syrian rebels. One outcome of this may well be the establishment of not only Russian but possibly also Iranian bases in Syria. Iran is an existential enemy of Israel.

This month, for example, Russia informed Israel that it had agreed with Iran and Turkey to set up a safe zone, or no-fly zone, in southwestern Syria, near the Israeli border of the Golan Heights. It is possible that Moscow will entrust the task of delineating and patrolling this zone to Iranian forces. That would radically increase the risk of hostilities breaking out between Israel and Iran in this Syrian border area. The very prospect might impel Israel, and even Jordan, to pre-empt an Iranian presence by moving forces into Syria.

Mr. Trump’s visit to Jerusalem next week provides Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, with an opportunity to seek American backing on this issue. Mr. Netanyahu will want to recruit Mr. Trump to persuade Russia to keep Iranian militias far from the Golan border. In this context, the president’s intelligence leak introduces an element of doubt and mistrust that can make the Israeli prime minister’s task only more complex and delicate.

But he may also discover an upside. Viewed through a Machiavellian prism, American embarrassment over the leak provides Mr. Netanyahu with a little extra leverage in his dealings with Mr. Trump next week. In the wake of Mr. Trump’s recent meeting with the Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas and meetings with other Arab leaders, there is a strong sense here that Mr. Trump is likely to spring a surprise on Israel involving an effort to restart the peace process. The anxiety for Mr. Netanyahu is that he might find himself under pressure to make concessions — on settlements in the West Bank, for example — that his own Likud Party and its coalition partners would reject.

No question, Mr. Trump has caused totally unnecessary damage. But does that mean he now owes Israel a favor that Mr. Netanyahu can call in?

Yossi Alpher is a former senior official in the Mossad and a former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University.

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