JERUSALEM – When Donald Trump was elected president, Israeli nationalists rejoiced that a reputed strong ally would be moving into the White House. But as Trump prepares to visit the region this weekend, apprehension reigns instead.
A diplomatic blowup over the status of Jerusalem, followed by revelations Trump had shared highly classified Israeli intelligence with Russia, has reinforced the president’s image as dangerously unpredictable.
With Trump backing away from his earlier support for hard-line Israeli positions and talking about a peace deal with the Palestinians, Israeli officials say they have no idea what ideas he may bring or concessions he may demand.
“I get the sense that there are certain questions indeed,” said Michael Oren, a deputy government minister involved in visit preparations, addressing the question of jitters on the Palestinian issue.
“What is not a question is that they are serious and … they want to see progress soon,” said Oren, a former Israeli ambassador to Washington. “I hope we can move without any pressure.”
Israel was in an uproar Wednesday after U.S. officials confirmed Trump shared highly classified intelligence about the Islamic State group with senior Russian officials visiting the White House.
A U.S. official said the information, about an IS threat related to the use of laptops on aircraft, came from Israel and there were concerns that a valuable Israeli asset could be in danger.
Trump appears to have spoken without Israel’s consent, which would mark a severe violation of their intelligence-sharing agreement. In addition, Russia maintains close ties with Iran and Syria, Israel’s bitter enemies.
Israeli officials did not confirm that they were the source of the information, and leaders played down the issue, perhaps wary of additional trouble ahead of Trump’s arrival in the Mideast.
“The security relationship between Israel and our great ally the United States is deep, meaningful and unprecedented in its scope and contribution to our strength,” Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman tweeted. “That is how it will continue to be.”
But security experts and retired officials were far more critical, saying Trump had caused immense damage and Israeli intelligence should be careful about sharing information with the U.S.
“Among the professionals it has had a very negative effect,” Shabtai Shavit, former chief of the Mossad spy agency, told a news agency. “My gut feeling is that anyone who belongs to the professional club is very angry.”
He said that while cooperation would continue, intelligence professionals would “think twice” before sharing information.
Danny Yatom, another ex-Mossad chief, said that if the reports were true, Trump had likely caused “heavy damage” to both Israeli and American security. Speaking to 103 FM, a local radio station, he suggested Israel “punish” the U.S. by withholding certain information.
Israeli intelligence keeps close tabs on its Middle Eastern neighbors and Islamic militant groups across the region. This information can be useful to Western allies, who have experienced attacks by Islamic extremists as well.
The intel uproar followed a spat this week over Jerusalem. Israeli media reported that U.S. and Israeli officials got into a shouting match after the Americans rebuffed Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s request to join Trump at the Western Wall in Jerusalem’s Old City.
Channel 2 TV said one American official told the Israelis the site is “not your territory” but part of the occupied West Bank. Netanyahu’s office said it was astonished by the comment.
The Western Wall is the holiest site where Jews can pray.
Israel captured east Jerusalem, including the Old City, in the 1967 Mideast war, along with the West Bank and Gaza. It considers the entire city its eternal capital and is set next week to celebrate the 50-year anniversary of what it calls Jerusalem’s unification.
But the international community does not recognize Israel’s annexation of east Jerusalem, which is also home to sensitive Christian and Muslim holy sites. The Palestinians seek the West Bank and Gaza for a future state, with east Jerusalem as their capital.
Despite the Israeli protests, Trump’s national security adviser would not back down. Speaking to reporters about the visit, H.R. McMaster said Tuesday the question of whether the Western Wall is part of Israel would require a “policy decision.” Trump is to visit the site by himself.
Trump visits Israel on Monday, after starting his trip to the region in Saudi Arabia on Saturday.
The conflicting claims to Jerusalem lie at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Because of the explosive nature of the issue, Trump has put on hold a campaign promise to move the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, a move favored by many in Israel and opposed by Palestinians.
Trump has backed away from other campaign promises as well. His platform made no mention of a Palestinian state, and he embraced West Bank settler leaders, who had been ostracized by the Obama administration. But since taking office, Trump has called for restraint in settlement construction. At a separate meeting with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas earlier this month, he promised “to do whatever is necessary” to forge a peace deal.
McMaster last week said the administration supports Palestinian “self-determination,” a reference interpreted by many as endorsing independence.
Naftali Bennett, leader of the nationalist Jewish Home Party, lamented this week “a kind of change in the spirit” of Trump’s positions since he was elected. He urged Netanyahu to stand firm during the visit.
In an interview published Wednesday in the “Israel Hayom” newspaper, Trump’s new ambassador, David Friedman, said the focus is on restarting long-stalled negotiations.
“The United States is not going to impose upon the parties its views of how to live together. They are going to come up with that on their own,” Friedman said.