Donald Trump’s visit to Israel on May 22 was supposed to be a break from his ongoing political battles and negative headlines, a chance to savor the embrace of Israeli adulation. Trump is popular with Israelis, where he’s seen as a strong man despite his less than coherent stance on the complex issues affecting the region.
Instead, a series of mini-crises have cast a cloud over the visit. The president’s decision to share Israeli intelligence with Russia has added a level of distrust, as has the apparent backtracking on a campaign promise to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem. Israelis are also looking to whether the U.S. will acknowledge that the Western Wall, located in east Jerusalem, the future capital of a future Palestinian state, as part of Israel.
Taken together, these diplomatic tensions could put a distance between the U.S. and Israel at a time when both countries are tackling the common challenges of Iran, Syria, and a possible commencement of new peace talks with the Palestinians.
The most serious threat to U.S-Israeli relations was sparked by Tuesday’s New York Times report that Trump revealed classified Israeli intelligence about an Islamic State group terror plot to Russian officials. This information was shared with U.S. authorities under the strict understanding that it would not be given to other agents – let alone with Russia, an ally of Israel’s greatest adversary Iran.
While Israeli ministers downplayed the impact of the intelligence breach, former Israeli intelligence officials slammed Trump’s leak as dangerous and an erosion of trust, while one former head of Mossad called for Israel to “punish the Americans” by abstaining “from transferring information to [Trump].”
“It was going to be challenging for both sides separate from the intelligence gaffe,” said Lara Friedman, the president of the Foundation for Middle East Peace. Friedman pointed to the Trump administration’s conflicting signals on Israel, like the appointment of hardline pro-Israel figures coupled with calls for restraint on settlements, as cause for confusion about what the president really wants. Israeli officials will be watching closely to see if Trump attempts to reconcile these conflicting signals in his public remarks.
While most analysts VICE News spoke to agreed that the intelligence leak would not fundamentally damage the U.S.-Israeli intelligence sharing relationship, there was a feeling that Israeli officials could exploit the intelligence breach for political reasons.
“The relations go very deep and very far. They are too important,” said Oded Eran, a former Israeli diplomat and researcher at the Tel Aviv-based Institute for National Security Studies. But, Eran told VICE News, “There is a tendency to say, ‘Mr. President, you owe us.’”
One way Israel could try to leverage the intelligence leak would be by obtaining concessions from Trump on his drive to forge an Israeli-Palestinian conflict-ending deal.
“It’s possible the Israeli government will use this intelligence slip up as a way to get the president to back off on some of the moves he made towards restarting the peace process,” said Michael Koplow, policy director at the Israel Policy Forum. “Things are moving at a much faster pace than the Israelis anticipated, given that the Israeli right declared Trump’s election as the end of a Palestinian state.”
Israel’s desire for a shift in U.S. policy on the peace process may increase given the diplomatic snafus Trump has run into on Jerusalem, which have angered Israelis. On Tuesday, a U.S. official sparked a diplomatic spat when he reportedly told Israeli officials that Netanyahu should not accompany Trump on a visit to the Western Wall because it is not under Israeli jurisdiction. National Security Adviser HR McMaster added to the controversy when he refused to say whether the Western Wall was a part of Israel.
The Western Wall is located in east Jerusalem, an area much of the world considers occupied territory and a possible future capital of a Palestinian state. The U.S. has long refrained from recognizing Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem, saying it was a matter to be decided in peace negotiations. However, Israel considers Jerusalem to be its capital, and the holy Western Wall a key part of that capital – and wants Trump to say so while in the Jewish state.
But Trump has not made any indication that he will do so, and instead has reportedly decided not to move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, which would have recognized Israeli sovereignty in the city.
The backtracking on an embassy move has shaken the resolve of Trump’s pro-Israel allies, who hoped that this move would signal the president’s unwavering commitment to the Jewish state. Instead, his flip-flopping on the issue has further highlighted the absence of a clear Trump policy on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The president has opted to put his son-in-law Jared Kushner in charge of Middle East policy.
“I’m disappointed he didn’t move the embassy,” said Mort Klein, the executive director of the Zionist Organization of America. “Many of us had such high expectations that Trump would be perfect on Israel, but it turns out that Trump is only good on Israel.”