Trump Revealed Israel's Secret Syria Raid to Russian Diplomats

The intelligence that President Donald Trump leaked to top Russian officials in an Oval Office meeting in May concerned a highly sensitive Israeli special forces mission, it has been revealed. The operation, which took place in February 2017, involved commandos infiltrating an area under the control of the Islamic State militant group (ISIS), to place a surveilance device. The intelligence obtained through the device prompted a short-term ban on laptops on flights from several majority-Muslim countries to the US and the UK.  

The target of the operation, according to a Vanity Fair report published on Wednesday, was an ISIS cell attempting to recreate a weapon developed by a top Al-Qaeda bombmaker. The weapon consisted of an explosive device that could be concealed inside a laptop and smuggled past airport security checks, raising the spectre of high-casualty attacks against civilian airlines.

Trump’s disclosure at the May 10 meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Russia's then-ambassador to Washington Sergei Kislyak has been widely publicised at the time, but details of the operation itself have not previously been disclosed. In particular, Trump is alleged to have revealed the name of the city where the operation took place, leading to fears that the source who alerted the Israelis to ISIS's intentions may be compromised. 

The president's carelessness with sensitive information threatened to deal a blow to the historically close relationship between American and Israeli intelligence agencies. Altough Israel enjoys a relatively robust relationship with Russia, Moscow is also a key ally of the regime of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad - a historical enemy of Israel - and of Iran, widely seen as Israel's main regional rival.  

“If this report is true, then giving those details about operations is something that is exclusively out of the question,” says Major (res.) Aviv Oreg, former head of the Al-Qaeda and global jihad desk for Israel's Military Intelligence, told Newsweek over the phone.  “I’m sure Israel will have second thoughts about giving information.”

“This is like something that has never been seen before,” he said. “You delivered to a third party all the details of how the secret service operates in Israel, how they are operating in the field in Syria. This is totally unacceptable.”

11_23_Trump_Lavrov A television plays a news report on U.S. President Donald Trump's recent Oval Office meeting with Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Ambassador to the U.S. Sergei Kislyak as night falls on offices and the entrance of the West Wing White House in Washington, U.S. May 15, 2017. Reuters/Jonathan Ernst

Despite the discomfort about the leak, the majority of former and current Israeli officials approached by Newsweek refrained from openly criticizing an American president viewed as one of the most vocal supporters of Israel to occupy the White House in many years.

"You assume that everything that was published was the truth? I'm not so sure. The relationship is still very strong," said one former military attaché at the Embassy of Israel in Washington, who has also served as the director of Israel's Counter Terrorism Bureau.

Maj. Gen. (ret.) Yaakov Amidror, former head of Israel's National Security Council and National Security Advisor to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, is of a similar view.

“Those who are outraged, they don’t know the history, they should know that from time to time things are leaked from the American side, things are leaked from the Israeli side,” he says over the phone.

“We have to learn the lessons,” he said. “We are going on. It will not stop our cooperation with the Americans.”

Israeli and American agencies have long worked in each the other’s favor. They routinely share raw intelligence - such as eavesdropping recordings -  and have conducted high-profile operations together, including the 2008 assassination of Imad Mughniyah, the intelligence chief for Hezbollah, an Iran-backed Lebanese Islamist group. 

11_23_Israel_Commandos Trump disclosed to Russian diplomats that elite Israeli commandos conducted a night mission to spy on the Islamic State militant group (ISIS). In this photo released by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), Israeli naval commandos are seen through night-vision gear as they launch a raid against Hezbollah fighters August 5, 2006 in south Lebanon city of Tyre. IDF via Getty

In the grand scheme of things, Trump’s bluster may be a blight on the relationship, but not one that can bring it all toppling down. The president himself is viewed in Israel as a friend who will support the country against both the Palestinians and against hostile regional actors, like Hezbollah and Iran - the latter a particularly frequent target of the American president's most combative remarks. Trump also appointed outspokenly pro-Israeli figures to oversee American policy for the region, including his son-in-law and senior advisor Jared Kushner, special advisor Jason Greenblatt and David Friedman, the new ambassador to Israel. 

More recently, Trump's administration shuttered the Palestinians Authority’s representative office in Washington D.C. in a bid to stop the Palestinian Authority from taking Israeli officials to the International Criminal Court (ICC) Gaza conflict in 2014. It also shrugged off the construction of the first new Israeli settlements in the West Bank in two decades, and the passing of an Israeli law that legalizes outposts built illegally on private Palestinian land.

Against this backdrop, even intelligence leaks, if kept to a minimum, might just be palatable for Israeli officials. There is one word that Amidror uses to summarize Trump’s disclosure of the top-secret mission and one that captures at least the official Israeli mood: “proportion,” he says.

“It’s not as bad as it was described.”