U.S. President Donald Trump delivers remarks to U.S. troops in an unannounced visit to Al Asad Air Base, Iraq December 26, 2018. .
(photo credit: REUTERS/JONATHAN ERNST)
The Israeli intelligence community closely followed the fight this week between US President Donald Trump and his intelligence chiefs. The reason? Because the amazing intelligence coordination between Israel and the US could be adversely affected.
On Wednesday, Trump called the director of National Intelligence, CIA director Gina Haspel and his other intelligence chiefs naïve, after their intelligence assessments to Congress undercut key aspects of his foreign policy.
The crux of Trump’s disagreement with his intelligence establishment was about Iran and North Korea, threats that Israel follows closely.
US intelligence officials did define Iran as one of four major threats. But they downplayed the current nuclear threat by emphasizing Iranian compliance with the 2015 nuclear deal.
This downplaying was a conscious decision, as they could have instead highlighted the deal’s loopholes, which may allow the Islamic republic to advance toward nuclear weapons without violating the deal’s provisions.
Trump’s critique of his intelligence chiefs rested on this distinction; supporters of his tough line against Iran have listed points the chiefs could have made against it. These include the country’s failure to explain damning nuclear files which the Mossad appropriated from Iran in January 2018, unresolved questions about its Arak nuclear facility
and other issues.
On the other hand, the bipartisan review in the US of Trump’s comments is that he crossed the line with his hostility to his own intelligence chiefs and showed a disregard for facts established by non-partisan intelligence professionals.
Trump’s North Korea moves are of concern to Israel since, if he gives them a lenient deal on their nuclear program, such a move could undermine pressure on that program.
UNTIL NOW, there have been two schools of thought within Israel’s intelligence community about Trump.
One school lauds his pro-Israel and anti-Iran positions and claims that even if his unpredictable personality and tweeting might set off some alarms, it can be overlooked as mostly a domestic US issue that does not concern Israel.
This school also advocates unrestrained intelligence sharing and defense coordination with Washington.
The best example was when Israel revealed its already mythical Mossad’s operation appropriating Iran’s nuclear secrets from Tehran, and Trump jumped on the information almost instantly to justify his leaving the Iran nuclear deal.
The other school appreciates his pro-Israel support, but views him with deep suspicion due to his leaking of an Israeli intelligence operation inside ISIS to Russia
in May 2017.
This group was influenced by the warnings that former president Obama’s intelligence officials gave Israelis in late 2016 – including former Mossad director Tamir Pardo – about Trump’s incoming administration.
Finally, if the more pro-Trump group has downplayed the impending US pullout of Syria, the other group responded to the withdrawal with dismay and a sense of betrayal.
HOW SHOULD Israeli intelligence react to the deepening split between Trump and his intelligence chiefs?
If the US intelligence heads are losing influence, should Israeli intelligence be working around them and try to access the White House more directly?
This question could be even more poignant if Israel wants to take a harder line with Iran that is in line with Trump, and which the US intelligence community is less on board with.
But it is not that simple.
Put North Korea into the equation, and Israeli intelligence is much closer to its US counterparts who that doubt Pyongyang has any intention of fully denuclearizing.
This means that Israel would support US intelligence’s tougher line with North Korea, as opposed to Trump’s seeming readiness to grant the North concessions as long as it continues its freeze on missile testing.
And while Trump talks tough about Iran, if he is handing over Syria to Moscow and Tehran, does Israel need to be concerned about sharing intelligence with the White House on that front?
There are also longer-term concerns if Israeli intelligence sides with Trump.
One way or another, Trump will be out of the picture in either two or six years.
If Israeli intelligence is seen as siding against their US counterparts, some CIA and other officials may remember the affront for decades after Trump is gone.
So there are no easy answers.
The truth is that the only clear rule for Israel is that it will need to work overtime to walk a tightrope between the divided US camp.
Even if it sometimes works more closely with one side or the other, Israeli intelligence will need to try to convince both Trump and the US intelligence community that it is on their side.