Israel and the United States share a desire to end the public debate on U.S. President Donald Trump’s leaking of sensitive Israeli intelligence to Russian officials about an ISIS plot. The administration was embarrassed by the incident, one of several presidential blunders surrounding the investigations into his staff’s relations with the Russians during the 2016 election campaign.
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Israel wants to avoid angering Trump during his first visit as president to the Middle East, a trip hovering between visions of grandeur and fears of disaster. It’s also reasonable to assume that the intelligence communities on both sides want to obscure details about the leaked information as much as possible to contain any damage that could result from Trump’s babbling.
For this reason we should be skeptical about some of the reports in the U.S. media. Last week, Israel made every effort to keep the media silent and play down talk of any damage.
Still, things should be said clearly: The damage Trump caused is considerable. It’s possible the details he gave the Russians won’t reach ISIS, which Moscow also sees as a sort of enemy, even if it doesn’t fight it resolutely. But giving the information to Russia probably means it could fall into the hands of Israel’s enemies, such as Iran, the Assad regime and Hezbollah, all partners to the Russian-led axis in Syria.
Also, from the moment the information about the leak was published in the American newspapers, there’s no doubt ISIS' counterintelligence people began reexamining information already published about the group hoping to figure out where the information came from.
The war against the radical Sunni terror groups, headed by ISIS and Al-Qaida, has been conducted in recent years in cooperation among various countries. Terror attacks in Europe and the Middle East have been foiled by putting together pieces of information leading to intelligence alerts and arrests in Europe, or airstrikes against ISIS.
Israel has played a major role in this war. On occasion it has even been thanked publicly. As a result of Trump’s blunder and the huge coverage that ensued, it will now be much harder to gather information on ISIS in the ways used thus far. Also, countries seen as close security partners with the United States will think twice before passing on raw intelligence to Washington, fearing it might fall into the wrong hands.
After the royal reception in Saudi Arabia, Trump will visit the Israelis and the Palestinians on Monday. The two leaderships are waiting for the final draft of the president’s declaration on his intention to jump-start the peace process. The Palestinians have submitted to the Americans a long list of proposed economic gestures by Israel. On Sunday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is supposed to make a final list of Israel’s steps to improve the Palestinians’ situation after consulting his cabinet and defense chiefs.
The Palestinian Authority has requested permission to build an airport in the West Bank and release the Palestinians from their total dependence on Israel in this regard. The Palestinians have proposed using the Atarot Airport north of Jerusalem, which isn’t active, or building a new terminal near the Jordan Valley. Israel is expected to object.
The Palestinians have also proposed the building of a Palestinian city in the West Bank in addition to the new city of Rawabi, the building of tourist sites north of the Dead Sea, the releasing of Fatah prisoners held in Israel and the reopening of the Orient House in East Jerusalem.
Israel’s list is much shorter, focusing on limited economic gestures. Netanyahu, under pressure from Education Minister Naftali Bennett, will have a hard time doing anything that reduces Israel’s control of Area C in the West Bank or is seen as reducing Israel’s hold of Jerusalem or giving in to the PA. So Israel has suggested opening the Allenby crossing between the West Bank and Jordan for 24 hours a day and developing new industrial areas near Jenin and Hebron.
The tension in the West Bank has been rising in recent days with hundreds of demonstrators blocking roads throughout the territory and throwing stones at Israeli cars, in solidarity with the Palestinian prisoners’ hunger strike that began more than a month ago. In two incidents armed settlers happened upon violent protests, opened fire, killed a Palestinian youngster and wounded other people.
On Friday a large demonstration took place on the Gaza border and soldiers fired at Palestinian protesters who approached the border fence. Deviating from its recent practice, the Hamas-led government has encouraged the demonstrations. By Saturday night no breakthrough had been made in the indirect efforts to reach an agreement with the hunger-striking prisoners.
Meanwhile the electricity crisis in Gaza, stemming from Hamas and the PA’s disagreement on tax payments on the fuel from Israel, is worsening. UN humanitarian coordinator Robert Pipe said Saturday that the “chronic crisis has become acute.” He warned of the impact of the electricity shortage on the drinkable water supply, sewage treatment and the operation of hospitals and schools. “There are indications that the electricity situation will deteriorate further still” this week, he said.
At the moment, Hamas is not an active player in Trump’s visit because the president sees the PA as the only Palestinian interlocutor. But Hamas has the ability to disrupt any progress in the talks between Israel and the PA if Trump’s peace plans are implemented.