Israeli leaders are unlikely to let the revelation that President Donald Trump shared classified Israeli intelligence with Russian officials derail a critical state visit next week.
But behind the scenes, U.S. officials may have some groveling to do in order to regain the trust of one of their most critical intelligence partners.
“There is no doubt in my mind that the Mossad is raging angry right now, and the Israeli defense intelligence agency is questioning how much they should be sharing with the administration,” said Ilan Goldenberg, director of the Middle East security program at the Center for a New American Security, who worked under former Secretary of State John Kerry on Middle East issues. “That’s a profound national security problem.”
He added: “This is a disaster because we have few intelligence relationships that are more important.”
Nobody expects Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to confront Trump in public. Weakened politically at home and dependent on his far-right coalition government, the embattled Israeli politician needs to use Trump’s visit to project a tight bond. He is not expected to start a public feud over the New York Times report that it was Israeli intelligence about an Islamic State threat that Trump shared with Russian officials visiting the Oval Office last week.
But the timing of the intelligence breach, just days before Trump is scheduled to depart for his first foreign trip, has also unnecessarily rattled the relationship, ahead of what was expected to be one of the most meaningful and welcoming stops on Trump’s five-country tour.
“The Israeli government won’t want to blow up the issue,” a former senior U.S. official said in an email. “But behind the scenes I would assume that the Mossad is very upset and will want some ironclad assurances from its American counterparts about the handling of similar information before they share it again (like a promise that it won’t be shared with the president!).”
Daniel Kurtzer, who served as U.S. ambassador to Israel from 1997 to 2001, said intelligence officials will be wondering, “Can we really trust you guys?”
The public smoothing of the intelligence fight began Tuesday. Israeli Ambassador Ron Dermer, a close ally of Netanyahu, said in a statement to the New York Times that the country had “full confidence in our intelligence-sharing relationship with the United States” and that Israel “looks forward to deepening that relationship in the years ahead under President Trump.”
On Tuesday, White House press secretary Sean Spicer would not comment on the news reports regarding Israeli intelligence but said he was “pleased to see Ambassador Dermer’s comment.”
“We appreciate the relationship that we have with Israel and appreciate the exchange of information we have with them,” Spicer said.
Trump, who during the campaign called himself “a newcomer to politics, but not to backing the Jewish state,” remains popular in Israel, where a poll during last year’s Republican primaries found that one in four Israelis said they would have voted for Trump, making him the favored GOP candidate.
And Trump, who has branded himself as a master negotiator, continues to say he will deliver what he has called “the ultimate deal,” peace in the Middle East.
White House officials said Tuesday he plans to visit the Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem, Yad Vashem, as well as the Western Wall, a holy site in Judaism.
But the intelligence breach wasn’t the only source of friction ahead of the trip.
On Monday, an Israeli news outlet reported that after Netanyahu requested to visit the wall with Trump, a U.S. official said it wasn’t possible because the Western Wall was part of the West Bank and not Israel.
The comments infuriated Israelis, who consider all of Jerusalem their territory. The area around the Western Wall was captured by Israel in a 1967 war. It is longstanding U.S. policy that the status of Jerusalem will be determined in a final negotiation between the Israelis and the Palestinians.
At a briefing Tuesday, National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster refused to answer questions about whether the administration considered the Western Wall to be part of Israel. “That sounds like a policy decision,” McMaster told reporters at a briefing in the White House.
“For a presidential visit, the failure to describe the Western Wall as part of Israel is a much bigger deal than the intel matter,” said Jeremy Bash, who previously served as chief of staff at the Defense Department and then at the CIA. “I think they seem to be too concerned it would upset the Palestinians, and they seem very eager for a breakthrough on the Israeli-Palestinian front. It raises the question of whether the administration is as pro-Israel as it claims to be.”
As the White House has been consumed by various self-created crises in the past week — starting with the fallout of the shock firing of FBI director James Comey — planning for the eight-day foreign trip has proceeded on a separate track, White House officials said.
Inside the White House, the daily trip planning meeting, which is chaired by son-in-law Jared Kushner, is typically attended by deputy National Security Adviser Dina Powell, McMaster and Joe Hagin, the White House chief of staff for operations, as well as National Security Council officials, an administration source said. Those meetings have continued throughout the past week.
On the trip, Trump is expected to be joined by almost all of his senior West Wing aides, who even at home often stick close to the president for fear of being out of the loop, or diminished in power, if they stray from his side.
Kushner, daughter Ivanka Trump, chief strategist Steve Bannon, chief of staff Reince Priebus, economic adviser Gary Cohn, Powell, policy adviser Stephen Miller, and Spicer will all be along for major chunks of the trip, according to multiple White House officials. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson will travel with the president through the G7 meeting in Sicily, and McMaster will accompany him for the entirety of the trip.
Also among those traveling with the president: his trusted aide Hope Hicks, deputy press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders and National Security Council spokesman Michael Anton, among others.
Counselor Kellyanne Conway, whose portfolio does not include foreign policy issues, and communications director Michael Dubke will be staying behind in Washington, White House officials told POLITICO.
Trump officials have been reaching out to Republican senators for guidance ahead of the trip. Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), who chairs the Foreign Relations Committee, last week hosted Kushner, McMaster and Powell in his office, where they “sought input from a number of senators regarding President Trump’s first foreign trip,” a Corker spokesman said. He would not say which senators participated in the briefing.
Bryan Bender contributed reporting.