On Tuesday, the New York Times reported that Israel was the country whose security secrets President Trump revealed to Russian diplomats in the Oval Office. This only added to the controversy surrounding the meeting, which the White House has tried desperately and futilely to tamp down.
To discuss what it all means for American-Israeli relations—Trump is scheduled to visit Israel next week—I spoke by phone with Ronen Bergman, the senior correspondent for military and intelligence affairs at the Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth and a contributing writer for the New York Times. (He is also the author of the upcoming book, Rise and Kill First: The Secret History of Israel’s Targeted Assassinations.) He reported in January that U.S. officials had warned their Israeli counterparts against sharing intelligence with Trump, fearing that it could end up in Russia’s hands. During the course of our conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, we discussed why intelligence leaks scare Israel so much, how Prime Minister Netanyahu will respond, and whether the Israeli right wing is souring on President Trump.*
Isaac Chotiner: Was this the worst-case scenario coming true for people who feared Trump’s access to intelligence?
Ronen Bergman: We still need to wait for the inquiries from the U.S. intelligence community, and at the same time, inquiries that will be held in Israel, to understand the nature of the information and what part of the information—if at all—was delivered. But on the face of it, if the publications are true, then of course, yes, this is exactly what the American senior intelligence officials warned in their meetings with their Israeli counterparts just before the inauguration of President Trump.
What type of information has Israel been specifically scared about getting leaked?
Israel has extensive intelligence cooperation with the United States that has been going on for many, many years. And it focuses on areas where the United States can help Israel and Israel can help the United States. The Israelis are sharing information—and this is a process that became more extensive and intimate since the early part of the last decade—and receiving information on mutual targets. So we are talking about Iran, Hezbollah, Hamas, and Syria. The extensive cooperation requires the delivery of information, and when it came to Iran, it was also a disclosure of sources and modus operandi. It’s not just information. If it is disclosed to a hostile third party, it can jeopardize sources that sometimes it takes years to develop and grow. [This interview was conducted before ABC News reported that the disclosure endangered the life of an Israeli spy.]
The fact that Trump tweeted that he has the right to deliver information as the president … I assume that being the president, he has the authority. But if this was indeed Israeli intelligence, then Trump does not really have the right to deliver it, even if he doesn’t say it is Israeli. The fact that President Trump used information from Israeli intelligence without their authority is a breach of the understanding between the two countries.
What do intelligence professionals in Israel and your sources make of Trump’s feelings toward and relationship with Russia?
They are extremely concerned. However, in order to know more about the Trump connection to Russia, or Russia’s alleged involvement in the United States election, or anything like that, Israel would need to do intelligence work inside the United States, or related to American targets. And this is something that Israel, after the Jonathan Pollard affair, would not do. So I would say that the Israeli assessment on Trump and his relations with the Russians are based on what Israel is hearing from Americans. And what they heard from Americans caused them great concern.
While national security professionals in Israel have expressed alarm about Trump, the people around Netanyahu, and the prime minister himself, have shown great warmth. How are those people dealing with this, and what do they make of it?
They really are doing whatever they can over the last 24 hours to refrain from saying anything. They are terrified that this will damage or badly influence the coming visit of the president, and they want to stay away from anything about this issue.
Because they don’t want to embarrass Trump?
Yeah, and because as far as I understand the Israelis don’t know—they have suspicions and bits of information—what the nature of the information that was delivered. They have assumptions and assessments, but it isn’t yet finalized. And for the political people around Netanyahu, their priority is the coming visit. They will do everything they can to refrain from upsetting the president or putting obstacles in front of the coming visit. The New York Times talked to the Israeli envoy, Ron Dermer, who basically did not react directly but said what he was expected to say, which is that the intelligence cooperation is firm, etc. etc.
What have people in Israel, and people close to Netanyahu, made of Trump wavering on his commitment to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem and refraining from commenting on the status of holy sites? This is after hugging Netanyahu’s Likud party extremely closely during the campaign.
People close to Netanyahu are extremely unhappy with that, but they still believe that at the end of the day, Trump has what they see as a historical obligation to identify with the right wing in Israel over a united, unified Jerusalem and continuation of settlements. At the end of the day, they think Trump holds these views. However, they are afraid that first, there are people in his administration taking him to a more centrist line, and second, that his enjoyment of the popularity he received after the missile strike in Syria will lead him to the conclusion that unlike his promise in the campaign to focus on America and domestic issues, he will do more on foreign policy and international relations and would like to pressure Israel for a deal. And that is a frightening scenario for them because there is no one to fight. Unlike with Obama, who was a Democrat and Netanyahu could recruit the House and Senate against him, Netanyahu understands that he doesn’t have anyone to recruit.
*Update, May 17, 2017: This paragraph has been updated to include information originally cut in the editing process.