Israel Won’t Let Trump’s Stumbles Get in the Way of Good Relations With Washington
Netanyahu said, "intelligence cooperation is terrific." And that was after Trump seemed to confirm he shared classified information.
President Donald Trump, in Israel for the second leg of his first trip abroad as president, seemed to confirm that the classified intelligence he reportedly shared with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov indeed came from Israel.
At a joint appearance with the president in Jerusalem, Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu was asked if Israel now had any concerns about sharing intelligence with the United States; the New York Times reported last week that Israel had given Washington key intel about terrorists’ bomb-making abilities.
That’s when Trump jumped in: “Just so you understand, I never mentioned the word or the name Israel. Never mentioned it during that conversation. And they’re all saying I did,” he said.
No media reports ever said that Trump had named Israel in his Oval Office conversations with top Russian officials, but simply that Israel was the source of the intel he passed on to Moscow. Trump’s impromptu statement Monday seemed to accidentally confirm where that intelligence came from.
“Intelligence cooperation is terrific,” said Netanyahu, who appeared to wince in response as he ushered Trump away from reporters. “It’s never been better.”
But behind the scenes, Israeli intelligence officials were furious about the gaffe, which one U.S. defense official described to Foreign Policy as “horrifying.”
Still, the latest iteration of the Russia scandal didn’t hog the headlines of Trump’s Jerusalem visit. He also became the first sitting president to go to the Western Wall, considered one of the holiest sites for observers of Judaism. Though it is not officially recognized as Israeli territory, the Trump administration sparked another mini controversy when it did not specify whether it considered it as such; Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said only that the wall is part of Jerusalem. U.S. policy for years has said the Western Wall is in Jerusalem, but not in Israel.
The dust up over the wall follows comments last week by Nikki Haley, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. She said then, “Obviously, I believe that the capital should be in Jerusalem and the [American] embassy should be moved to Jerusalem.” She also said that the Western Wall is part of Israel.
Haley’s statement is controversial, and not only because of the Western Wall. She repeated Trump’s campaign line that the embassy should be moved. Some hardliners criticized Trump for balking on his campaign pledge to move the U.S. embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, a hotly-disputed piece of geography.
Experts and officials feared the Israel portion of the trip may be the trickiest for Trump as he navigates the perilous Israel-Palestine issue. There are plenty of political landmines for a president to stumble over, particularly one who is known to go off-script. Earlier this year, in a White House press conference with Netanyahu, Trump said “I can live with either” a one- or two-state solution, which, while echoing his campaign, was a marked departure from decades of U.S. policy.
“It doesn’t look like Trump does much homework. That’s problematic the more you get into the real diplomacy,” said Daniel Kurtzer, former U.S. ambassador to Israel and a Middle East expert now with Princeton University. “These are highly nuanced issues. In the minds of Israelis and Palestinians, nuance is what they look for,” he told FP.
Trump ad libbed less in his joint press conference with Netanyahu. In fact, the two seemed to avoid any major controversies or flare ups — and, of course, any questions: The “press conference” was followed by a photo opportunity, but no back-and-forth with journalists. That follows an appearance over the weekend by Tillerson in Saudi Arabia where the U.S. press was excluded.
In the joint remarks, Netanyahu stressed how welcome Trump and his wife are — “There is no city on Earth where you are more welcome than right here with us in Jerusalem,” the prime minister said — and how much he appreciates Trump’s foreign policy. Netanyahu highlighted in particular Trump’s tough policy on Iran, Syria, and in a not-so-subtle dig at President Barack Obama, the “reassertion of American leadership in the Middle East.”
Trump, for his part, waxed poetic about Israel, which he called, “a land filled with beauty, wonder, and the spirit of God,” and its “unbreakable bond” with the United States. Fresh from Saudi Arabia, Trump spoke to how Arab and Muslim leaders want to work together — perhaps even with Israel — for peace in the region.
“King Salman, he treated us so beautifully and really wants to see great things happen for the world, he really does,” Trump said. Trump thanked the prime minister for his commitment to a peace deal — “I’ve heard it’s one of the toughest deals of all” — and promised to engage in productive discussions, so that it could be realized.
“I’m certain we will have very productive discussions, and we’re going to have very productive discussions, in my opinion, with the leaders of other nations also, and I feel strongly about that,” Trump said, adding, “There’s a lot of love out there.”
Israel was hoping for a reset with Washington after strained ties under Trump’s predecessor. Its relations with Washington are “almost an existential issue, seen as vital to the nation’s well-being and security,” said John Hannah, a senior George W. Bush administration official now with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a Washington-based think tank. He told FP Israel will cut Trump a lot of slack for day-to-day stumbles because of his decidedly pro-Israel stance.
“That Israelis now believe that they’ve got a president and a White House who really ‘get it’ when it comes to the main threats facing the Jewish State is a matter of huge relief,” he said.
Photo credit: Amos Ben Gershom/GPO via Getty Images
Emily Tamkin is a staff writer at Foreign Policy covering ambassadorial and diplomatic affairs in Washington. @emilyctamkin