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Cloak and daggers are drawn for Trump’s trip to the Holy Land and Israel

19 May 2017

Nathan Jeffay in Jerusalem

Israeli intelligence allegedly leaked by the White House to the Russians is proving a prickly issue for one of the US’s staunches allies

Donald Trump wanted the focus of his first foreign Presidential trip to be the religious sites he will visit. But in the Holy Land, the spying saga has elbowed sacred sites right off the agenda.

There was great anticipation here for Trump’s visit to the Western Wall, which will make him the first sitting US President to go there. The key word is “was” — because as of Tuesday evening, everyone seems to have forgotten about this visit to the wall, historic because all his predecessors avoided the place while in office given that Israel’s claim of sovereignty over the wall is widely disputed.

Other aspects of his trip were also suddenly all but forgotten on Tuesday, such as the way it’s part of a three-legged religious-themed expedition — Saudi Arabia, Rome and the Holy Land. All of this fell to the wayside when credible reports suggested that Israel had been the source of the intelligence that Trump passed to Russia.

In general, one of Israel’s nightmares is that its intelligence could land in Iranian hands. And as soon as the New York Times reported that the intelligence that Trump shared with Russians at the White House last week originally came from Israel, Jerusalem started fearing the worst: that the information could make its way to Russia’s ally Iran.

This wasn’t only a concern of the diplomatic and security elite; it touched a very raw nerve of average Israelis. Was it really the case that Israelis had been putting themselves at risk spying on Islamic State (IS) only to find that their efforts were backfiring — with any gain against the terrorist organisation being outweighed by possible intelligence gains by Iran? This fear appeared to be vindicated when ABC news reported that Trump’s information-sharing had endangered an Israeli spy embedded within Islamic State.

The intelligence passed from the US to Russia was about IS plans to get explosive laptops on to planes, and Iran is thought to be able to follow the trail using the information to get a deep understanding of Israeli intelligence-gathering, outing its moles in IS and setting back its spying efforts in the future.

Amid all of this, the question of what Trump may scribble on a note to God to be inserted in to the cracks of the Western Wall, or what prayer he will utter in Bethlehem, are hard to focus on. He will be arriving on Monday as Israelis ask some of the most difficult questions they have ever asked about their country’s “special relationship” with the US. Is it safe for Israel to be sharing its intelligence with its strongest ally when Trump is in the White House?

Though the Israeli ambassador in Washington, Ron Dermer, insists it’s business as usual, former Mossad chiefs have said that they would be hesitant to share strong intelligence if they were asked to do so today, or suggested that Israel only gives partial information in order to protect sources. And should this seem like heat-of-the-moment anger, the man who headed the US embassy in Tel Aviv until recently is taking such talk seriously. The incident will “inevitably cause elements of Israel’s intelligence service to demonstrate more caution”, former ambassador Dan Shapiro told ABC.

This intelligence issue is likely to hang over Trump’s time in Israel like a dark cloud. It will feature heavily in closed-door conversations, while in public appearances every effort will probably be made to avoid all mention and dodge any questions on the subject. It’s possible that it could make Trump a little less bold, a little less authoritative, and a little less demanding with the Israelis.

“Care will be taken for it to not be mentioned by any official in any public way but I guess that Israel will use it in the sense of ‘you owe us one’,” Paul Scham, an expert on US-Israel relations at the University of Maryland, told me. “It wants things from Trump who isn’t being nearly as supportive as Israelis expect on settlements and other issues, and I can’t imagine Israel not using this exploitatively, which I think is par for the course for most countries in intelligence relationships.”

This IOU could be small in value, for example a slight toning down of language used by Washington on settlements, or it could conceivably be larger. Might Trump have prepared to make demands for immediate negotiations, but now find himself letting Israel cash in its IOU to have these put on ice? In all likelihood we will never know what concessions if any Israel gets as s result of this saga. Unless, of course, Trump blurts out the details over a cup of coffee with Vladimir Putin (Trump famously doesn’t drink alcohol).

Even before the story about the intelligence broke, things were not going smoothly between Jerusalem and Washington as they prepared for the trip.

While Trump’s Western Wall visit had been arousing interest until Tuesday, it was also causing Jerusalem-Washington tensions. The Western Wall is “not your territory. It’s part of the West Bank”, a senior Trump official told Israeli counterparts according to Israel’s Channel 2 television, and Israeli officials were said to be “shocked”. This started a bitter exchange between Jerusalem and Washington over the status of the site. This was hardly a great trailer for a trip that is supposed to highlight the unifying power of religious sites.

Will Trump and the Israelis manage to put on a convincing united front during their time together, or will the tensions come to dominate the visit? Will they find a way to catapult the issues of religious heritage and tolerance back on to the agenda? He is choosing to speak at the Israel Museum, presumably because it houses the Dead Sea Scrolls and he wants to focus on the ancient religious heritage of the Holy Land. Will this message get through? Will he succeed in getting people talking about the potential for faiths to unite against religious extremism and about Israel-US ties?

As I await the answers, I find myself remembering standing at Ben Gurion Airport in 2013 watching Air Force One land and Barack Obama step out. At that time I was wondering how this president, who had such tense relations with the Israeli leadership, would manage his trip — only to see it go remarkably smoothly. Had I said then that the next presidential visit would be made by Trump, nobody would have believed me. If I had also said that Trump is an Israel-adoring business mogul who has even donated to a settlement would have arrived amid US-Israel controversy the likes of which Obama never saw, I would have seemed crazy.

Nathan Jeffay in Jerusalem

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