Former top Israeli officials break with government line and call Trump leak very troubling

President Trump and Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the White House on Feb. 15, 2017.
(Win McNamee / Getty Images)

Former Israeli intelligence officials expressed grave concern over reports President Trump divulged secrets to the Russians provided by Israel, breaking with the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, which in the wake of the revelation sought to portray the bilateral ties as business as usual.

Amid questions over the leak, Israeli newspaper Haaretz on Wednesday reported that Trump spoke with Netanyahu by phone. It further stoked speculation about Israel’s involvement in the controversy.

“What Trump did is liable to cause heavy damage to Israel’s security, as well as the source, and U.S. security,’’ Danny Yatom, a former chief of the Mossad, Israel’s international spy agency, said in an interview with a Tel Aviv radio station. “Especially if this information reaches our good friends the Iranians.”


Yatom said that if such shared intelligence information isn’t guarded, the relations will be undermined.

“There will be a loss of faith between the intelligence services,” he said.

Speaking to Israel Radio, Ofer Shelah, an opposition lawmaker who is a member of the parliament’s foreign affairs and defense committee, said intelligence and security officials must exercise extra caution when dealing with Russia because of its direct involvement in the Middle East and alliances with Israeli foes.

“From our point of view, there’s room for worry, regardless of this specific report,’’ he said.

In contrast, less than a week before Trump is scheduled to arrive in Israel for an official visit, Israeli government officials were either tight-lipped or hailing the relationship between the U.S. and Israel.

The uproar in the U.S. over Trump’s divulging of classified intelligence to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov about Islamic State threatened to overshadow Trump’s visit.

Trump is scheduled to arrive in Israel on Monday from Saudi Arabia and is slated to give a speech at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. He will also visit Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank and make private visits to holy sites in the Old City of Jerusalem before departing for Italy the next day.

The visit has stirred expectations that Trump would unveil some sort of initiative to restart Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations while making a gesture recognizing Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem — part of which is claimed by the Palestinians as a capital of their future state.

The security relationship between Israel & our greatest ally the United States, is deep, significant & unprecedented in volume.

— Avigdor Lieberman, Israeli defense minister

Israeli government officials on Wednesday issued statements that bilateral intelligence cooperation would remain unaffected, while omitting any reference to the controversy.

“The security relationship between Israel & our greatest ally the United States, is deep, significant & unprecedented in volume,” Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman tweeted Wednesday morning. “This is how it has been and how it will continue to be.’’

Israeli government spokespeople and intelligence experts recalled instances when Israeli politicians had unwittingly divulged secrets in the course of public remarks, and said leaks of sensitive information are part of the risks of intelligence sharing.

Netanyahu’s office confirmed that the two leaders had spoken for about 20 minutes on Tuesday, but would only say that the discussion dealt solely with the upcoming visit.

“Clearly, the last thing Netanyahu needs now, on the eve of a visit in which Trump is likely to saddle him with a new and ambitious initiative for peace with the Palestinians, is an intelligence crisis with the Americans,’’ wrote Amos Harel, a military columnist for Haaretz. “Even if Israel was harmed by Trump’s behavior, it won’t rush to make this public.”

Before Israel became a part of the controversy, Netanyahu was struggling with the fallout over U.S. comments regarding Trump’s campaign promise to move the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem — which has yet to be fulfilled.

After Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday that the U.S. was still conferring with Israelis on whether moving the embassy would help the peace process or be “a distraction,” the prime minister’s office released multiple statements insisting that Netanyahu encouraged the president to move ahead.

Trump’s visit comes a week before a deadline for him to exercise a semiannual waiver to postpone action on a congressional decision two decades ago calling for the relocation of the embassy to Jerusalem. Israeli right-wing politicians have been hoping he won’t postpone the decision, and have attacked Netanyahu for not making a strong enough case.

After the flap over the secretary of State’s remarks, Israel’s Channel 2 television news reported that during preparations for Trump’s visit to the Western Wall in the Old City, a U.S. diplomat referred to the location — one of Judaism’s holiest sites — as part of the West Bank and not belonging to Israel.

All of the Old City was captured by Israel from Jordan in the 1967 Six-Day War. Although Israel annexed it along with all of Jordanian East Jerusalem, the Palestinians and most of the international community consider it part of the occupied West Bank.

“The expectations from Trump were for him to act as if he were an Israeli citizen,’’ said Ayelet Nahmias-Verbin, a lawmaker from the opposition Zionist Union party. “People on the right will let Trump get away with anything as long as he acts as if the only interest that he has is Israel. And as we all know, the situation in the region is more complex than that.”

Mitnick is a special correspondent.