Israeli officials on Wednesday sought to downplay any damage caused by President Donald Trump’s disclosure of classified information to senior Russian officials that was reportedly provided by Israel, and lauded the robust security cooperation with the United States just days before the president is due to arrive for a state visit.
Despite fears that the leak could endanger a valuable Israeli intelligence asset within the Islamic State group, officials stressed that nothing would change as a result of the extraordinary breach.
“The security relationship between Israel and our great ally the United States is deep, meaningful and unprecedented in its scope and contribution to our strength,” Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman tweeted. “That is how it has been and that is how it will continue to be.”
Israel has yet to acknowledge claims from U.S. officials that it was the source of the highly classified information about an Islamic State plot that Trump divulged to Russian diplomats.
Trump appears to have shared the information without Israel’s consent, which would mark a severe violation of the confidentiality of their intelligence-sharing agreement. Even more remarkable is that Trump chose to confide in representatives of an adversary, who could relay the information to its allies Iran and Syria, bitter enemies of Israel, and potentially find the source.
Trump is due to arrive in Israel next week as part of his first overseas trip as president. Israel has looked to Trump as a close ally but there has been growing apprehension over his unpredictability.
Trump has already walked back on some campaign promises that were favored by the Israeli government. He has expressed interest in brokering a peace deal with the Palestinians since becoming president, but it’s unclear what kind of demands he could make on Israel, if any, during his daylong visit next week. Conflicting comments from administration officials regarding Israel’s sovereignty over Jerusalem’s Western Wall have only added to the concerns.
The intelligence breach is the latest drama leading up to the visit. American officials say Trump shared details about an Islamic State terror threat related to the use of laptop computers on aircraft with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Ambassador to the U.S. Sergey Kislyak. The disclosure apparently came as Trump boasted about his access to classified intelligence.
Avi Dichter, a lawmaker in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party and a former head of the Shin Bet security service, said that even if what was reported was true it did not deliver a damaging blow.
“The current president has been serving for slightly over 100 days. This is not enough time to accumulate experience that is as bad as it is described by the media,” he told Israel’s Army Radio.
“I am familiar with a few other cases over the years in other countries where they made use of materials — perhaps even in a more scandalous manner than was described by the media in this case.”
Israeli Intelligence Minister Yisrael Katz said he had complete confidence in the American intelligence community. “Intelligence cooperation between Israel and the United States regarding the threats posed by Iran and its proxies and ISIS and its affiliates will continue and deepen,” he said, using an acronym for the IS group.
Shortly after the news broke Tuesday that the intelligence Trump shared came from Israel, Trump spoke by phone with Netanyahu. But Netanyahu spokesman David Keyes said the only topic discussed in the 20-minute conversation was Trump’s upcoming visit.
Amnon Sofrin, a former head of the Mossad spy agency’s intelligence directorate, said cooperation between the United States and Israel was so vast that this was unlikely to undermine it.
“It may cause small damage or a local one but not a disaster,” he said. “None of us in the intelligence community likes this event, but it can be put aside.”
Even with the calming messages, there were voices suggesting the affair could harm years of hard-earned trust.
In a newspaper column titled “Dangerous Amateurism,” Israeli intelligence expert Yossi Melman wrote that Trump presumably passed the information on “not out of malice, but simply due to his lack of understanding of the rules of the game.”
“If he did this with malicious intent, then that is a different story, which borders on treason and espionage,” he wrote in Maariv. “There is no doubt that officials in the U.S. intelligence community are also embarrassed by the president’s amateurism. But at this point what can they do?”