Analysis

Israel’s Hands Are Tied - No Matter What Intel Trump Leaks

But reports of the supposed damage of the U.S. president’s comments could be disinformation, meant to reduce the real harm of his words

U.S. President Donald Trump poses for a photograph with Ensign Erin Reynolds after presenting her commission at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy commencement in New London
BRIAN SNYDER/REUTERS

Donald Trump’s sharing of classified intelligence from Israel with the Russians is sure to come up during the final preparations for the U.S. president’s meetings with Israeli officials during his visit to the country next week. Israel is expected to request clarifications from Trump and his aides regarding the nature of the information that was passed on and the level of detail that was given to Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. Official Jerusalem issued reassuring messages regarding the robustness of security between the two countries.

According to reports in the U.S. media, the Israeli intelligence was about possible plans by the Islamic State group to use bombs concealed in laptop computers to blow up airplanes. It was as a result of such threats that the United States imposed restrictions on taking electronic devices into the passenger cabins on flights to America originating in 10 airports in Arab countries and in Turkey. It seems unlikely that Russia, a partner in the war against the Islamic State (if not to the extent that Moscow professes, or the degree that Trump would like), would give intelligence about Islamic State to the organization itself.

Trump is not the first leader, or even the first U.S. president, to be overly free with classified information. What was unusual in this case was the brevity of the time that elapsed between the president’s disclosure and the leaking of his indiscretion to the two American newspapers that broke the story. This proved, once again, that the U.S. intelligence community includes a fair number of individuals who loathe Trump and fear the implications of his serving out his term that they are willing to risk leaking a misstep to the media. That was presumably also the main reason for Israel’s concern: Beyond the danger of compromising the sources, there is also the recognition that the secrets of Israeli intelligence — and, in fact, the security of the entire world — are in the hands of an irresponsible, unpredictable character.

Nevertheless, there is little that Israel can do. It’s dependent on the United States, not the other way around. It’s unlikely that Netanyahu will decide to scold his presidential guest and suspend Israeli military aid to the United States as a result of the affair. At most, Israel could decide to be slightly more cautious about giving the Americans raw intelligence. We can assume that U.S. intelligence agencies are already doing this, in light of the personality of the commander in chief.

There is a different sort of awkwardness when it comes to Israel’s relations with Russia. Since September 2015, when Russia deployed two fighter squadrons in Syria in order to save the Assad regime, Israel has done everything it can to avoid an escalation with the Russians. Netanyahu has become a frequent flier on the Tel Aviv-Moscow route, bringing along the army chief of staff and the head of Military Intelligence and establishing a successful mechanism for preventing friction between the two countries’ air forces.

All this doesn’t mean that Israel is sharing all the intelligence that it possesses with Russia, Assad’s patron and the partner of Iran and Hezbollah in the Syrian war. Israel would probably prefer to decide for itself what to tell Russia, instead of being hostage to Trump’s attention-deficit disorder.

Still, we can assume that some of the reports in the past two days are the product of intentional disinformation, or speculation by people who have watched too many episodes of “Homeland.” From the moment the story broke, it has been in the interest of both the United States and of Israel to spread false information, in an effort to reduce the real harm to the work of intelligence gathering as well as to Trump’s image.

Judging by the reports in foreign media over the past two years, it seems that Israel obtained impressive intelligence of terror attacks planned in the Syrian city of Raqqa, the self-proclaimed capital of the Islamic State. It can be assumed that in a few cases that resulted in warnings about planned attacks being passed on to European states. But that is still a long way from determining that the source that is now in danger is necessarily a flesh-and-blood Israeli agent. There are numerous and sundry ways to collect intelligence.