Analysis

Netanyahu's Trump Dilemma May Resolve Itself During His Upcoming Mideast Trip

With scandals engulfing the White House, Trump seeks an elusive win in the Middle East

Saudi King Salman presents President Donald Trump with The Collar of Abdulaziz Al Saud Medal at the Royal Court Palace, Saturday, May 20, 2017, in Riyadh.
Evan Vucci/AP

The language, terminology and images appearing in this week’s news reports from Washington all echo the Watergate era. Special counsel, secret memos, suspicion of the existence of tapes of secret meetings, “non-denial denial.” The scandals engulfing the Trump administration make it seem like we’re suddenly watching a rerun of “All the President’s Men.” Only with improved lighting (and, fortunately, no beige suits) this time around. Otherwise, it feels like we’re back in the 1970s, including the president embarking on a diplomatic campaign with which he hopes to somehow divert the media coverage from the investigations of his administration to foreign affairs.

Is the profound crisis in which Trump’s administration now finds itself, less than four months into his presidency, good or bad for the Jews? In regard to one Jew named Benjamin Netanyahu, two conflicting theories were recently voiced. One is that the prime minister can take advantage of the trouble caused by the president’s leaking highly classified intelligence obtained from Israel to Russia to demand some kind of diplomatic compensation when Trump comes to Israel next week. The other is that Trump is now in such deep distress right now that it would be best not to annoy him with extra demands. The fact that Israeli officials have maintained uncharacteristic silence concerning this episode indicates that Jerusalem has apparently decided to strenuously avoid angering the president, even when his people insisted on dictating how the Western Wall visit would proceed. When even Minister Yuval Steinitz is keeping mum, one has to assume that some decision has gone down.

Trump’s visit to Israel and the Palestinian Authority, a layover on the way back from the trip’s main destination, Saudi Arabia (with which the administration aims to sign arms deals worth billions of dollars), could turn out to be the point at which Netanyahu’s dilemma resolves itself. The excessive exhilaration with which the Israeli right greeted Trump’s election – a feeling that was shared mainly by Education Minister Naftali Bennett and by Netanyahu’s acolytes in the media, more so than by the prime minister himself – has given way to great trepidation. Despite the frequent message from Washington about the president’s intention to make the deal of all deals between the Israelis and Palestinians, it’s hard to see how such a process could be sustained, given all of Trump’s problems at home.

The bleak condition of the administration is evident both from the scandals that are erupting in Washington on a daily basis now, and from the proliferation of leakers. The Washington Post and the New York Times, which have been leading the coverage, note in some of the reports that they are based on conversations with as many as a dozen sources close to Trump. When the president curses at the television screen in the evening and the media reports on it the next day, the White House has obviously sprung a multitude of leaks. The story of the president leaking Israeli intelligence about ISIS plots, which caused a brief uproar sometime way back on Tuesday, quickly gave way to an even bigger uproar over the leak of a memo by fired FBI director James Comey, in which he recorded that Trump asked him to drop the investigation into former National Security Advisor General Michael Flynn, saying that Flynn is a “good guy.”

Under these circumstances, is there any way Trump could present a coherent plan that would bring the parties in the Middle East to reach agreements that eluded his predecessors Clinton, Bush and Obama? Even the bombing of the Syrian airbase in Homs, which earned Trump worldwide praise back in early April, is now being seen in a somewhat different light. The action was and still is correct, politically and morally, but it was a very limited move – and Trump is seeming more like a broken watch that shows the correct time twice a day. So far, the new president’s tenure is everything we were warned about. An irresponsible circus fraught with peril. As the Times aptly described it this week, the administration keeps shooting from the hip, and then it shoots itself in the foot.

If Bush could do it

Trump is not the first American president to make dangerous use of classified Israeli intelligence. In 2005, according to foreign reports, the IDF intelligence branch managed to obtain a copy of a letter sent by Osama bin Laden’s deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri (now the leader of Al Qaida), to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who headed the organization’s network in Iraq at the time. The correspondence related to an internal debate in Al Qaida over what actions should take priority – Should it first strike at the West, or should it concentrate its efforts on seizing more territory in Arab countries?

The commander of one of the largest units in army intelligence was sent to the U.S. to present the information to his counterparts in the American intelligence community and obtain their vow that the information would be kept secret. But not long afterwards, President George Bush made public use of the letter. Israel understood the reasons. Bush saw it as proof that had he not gone to war against terrorism in the Middle East and Central Asia – which resulted in the downing of Saddam Hussein’s government in Iraq and perpetuation of the chaos in Afghanistan, Al Qaida would have continued striking the United States on its land.

The foreign media reported that Israel was angry over the leak, which put sensitive intelligence sources at risk, but elected not to respond. The same thing will probably happen this time, following Trump’s disclosure which could hurt ongoing intelligence gathering about ISIS command headquarters in the Syrian city of Raqqa. There were also at least two instances in which Prime Minister Ariel Sharon divulged sensitive intelligence information that Israel had received from the Americans. The difference is that, unlike Bush and Sharon, Trump has done so impulsively and with seeming lack of awareness. It is this fear that already worried America’s close partners in gathering and sharing intelligence. And as reports of the latest developments in the Comey and Flynn affair and possible Russian ties also demonstrate, the current American president is a dangerous fellow.