Netanyahu and Trump speak on phone amid growing row over Russia leak
Israeli PMs office says call was solely about US presidents upcoming visit, not his decision to share sensitive intelligence with Russia
Donald Trump and the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, have spoken by telephone amid an escalating row over the US presidents sharing of highly sensitive intelligence with Russia, reportedly supplied by Israel.
The intelligence breach is the latest drama to affect Trumps visit to Israel and the Middle East next week, although a spokesman for Netanyahu insisted the 20-minute call initially not publicised concerned only details of Trumps trip.
The confirmation of the call came after the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, offered to hand over records of Trumps talks with the Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, to the US Congress. He dismissed the scandal over the intelligence-sharing as schizophrenia.
US officials say Trump shared details about an Islamic State terror threat related to the use of laptop computers on aircraft with Lavrov and Russias ambassador to the US, Sergey Kislyak.
US media outlets including the New York Times reported on Tuesday that the US ally that supplied the intelligence on the understanding it not be shared was Israel.
Trump on Twitter has strongly defended the sharing of the material, after White House spokesmen denied the story.
A spokesman in Netanyahus office confirmed the phone call had taken place on Tuesday afternoon, but did not say who initiated it.
In January, citing unnamed sources, Israels Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper reported that US intelligence officials had warned their Israeli counterparts about the risk of sensitive material provided by Israel to the US being leaked from the new administration.
The article cited concerns about Trumps attacks on the US intelligence community as well as fears of alleged Russian intervention in the presidential election. It did not suggest, however, that Trump himself might disclose highly sensitive intelligence material to Russia.
The claims about the source of the intelligence on the laptops threat could not come at a more delicate moment. Trumps visit on Friday, which was already set to be a complicated and sensitive visit diplomatically, has suddenly become even more complex.
Though there has been no confirmation that Israel was the source, a series of remarks by Israeli officials suggested a desire to draw a line under the affair.
Ron Dermer, Israels ambassador to the US, told the New York Times that the countries intelligence services would continue to cooperate on counter-terror matters. Israel has full confidence in our intelligence-sharing relationship with the United States and looks forward to deepening that relationship in the years ahead under President Trump, Dermer said in a statement.
Israels defence minister, Avigdor Lieberman, on Wednesday tweeted praise of the deep, meaningful and unprecedented security cooperation between the countries, adding: That is how it has been and that is how it will continue to be.
Amnon Sofrin, a former head of the Israeli security service Mossad, said cooperation between the US and Israel was so vast that Trumps action was unlikely to undermine it. It may cause small damage, or a local one, but not a disaster, he said. None of us in the intelligence community likes this event, but it can be put aside.
Behind the scenes and in the media, however, others appeared less certain, raising questions about whether Israel could seek new arrangements for sharing its most sensitive intelligence.
In a newspaper column headlined Dangerous amateurism, the Israeli intelligence expert Yossi Melman said Trump presumably had passed on the information not out of malice but simply due to his lack of understanding of the rules of the game.
If he did this with malicious intent, then that is a different story, which borders on treason and espionage, he wrote in Maariv. There is no doubt that officials in the US intelligence community are also embarrassed by the presidents amateurism. But at this point, what can they do?
For all the reassuring noises coming from Israeli officials, there are real concerns about the perception of a compromised or leaky Trump White House, not least in relation to Russia. Those concerns were amplified on Tuesday by unnamed sources quoted by Yediot suggesting that Israel might need to reassess how it shared intelligence with the US.
The problem isnt the information but the extremely sensitive sources [that were used] to obtain it, some of which took years of investment, the paper quoted one source as saying. The Russians arent stupid; theyre going to realise where it came from and either they or their allies, all of whom are enemies of Israel, will take appropriate measures.
Intelligence ties between the two countries have been strengthening over the last decade and a half, not least in relation to Iran and its clients, including Hezbollah.
Israels intelligence minister, Yisrael Katz, said he had complete confidence in the US intelligence community despite the latest controversy. Intelligence cooperation between Israel and the United States regarding the threats posed by Iran and its proxies and Isis and its affiliates will continue and deepen, he said.