Kafe Knesset for May 17
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Between the Kotel, the possible relocation of the US Embassy, and Masada – President Trump’s visit has already been an eventful ride for Israelis, even before it began. And that was even before the New York Times dropped the bomb revealing that Israel was the source of the intelligence inadvertently leaked to Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov last week. While intelligence and security officials are still fuming, early this morning Defense Minister Liberman tweeted a reassuring message – “the security relationship between Israel and our greatest ally is deep, significant and unprecedented in volume. This is how it has been and how it will continue to be.” Other Israeli politicians were reluctant to discuss the matter on the record, but behind closed doors, many in the Knesset are expressing shock and embarrassment from the incident.
Meanwhile, following all of these debacles, Jerusalem is trying to reduce the stress. Many Israeli officials have been complaining about the US preliminary team, stressing that they are inexperienced and lack the authority to make real decisions, constantly changing the President’s demands. Five days ahead of the visit, no briefing has been given by the Israeli side, and even the traditional grand rehearsal at the Ben Gurion airport is apparently in doubt. A senior Israeli official explained that things are still changing, by the hour, and the government does not want to have any more misunderstandings. “The barrage of mixups between the prep teams, together with all of the diplomatic confusion, is worrying, and we think that it is better to dim the lights and lower expectations.”
Meanwhile, the administration is also trying to send a reassuring message, as the new US Ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, gave his first interview to Israeli readers. Guess where? Sheldon Adelson’s Israel Hayom. Friedman told the paper that Trump is arriving in Israel “without a specific political plan or road map” and that “there is no demand from Israel to freeze construction in the settlements.” Friedman stressed that “There is no doubt that Obama’s policy is over and that there is a dramatic change. No more leading from behind, and this region suffered because the US did not lead. The President is about to fix this path. I do not want to speak on behalf of the President about what he will or will not do about construction in Jerusalem or the settlements, but if you look at what has been said about the settlements so far, his position was fundamentally different from Obama. He did not say that the settlements are an obstacle to peace. He did not say he was interested in a freeze. He said he wanted to reach an understanding with the Israeli government on how they would deal with the settlements. I think the circumstances are completely different.”
Flashback to MOU days: Less than a year after the signing of the historic Memorandum of Understanding between Israel and the Obama administration, one of its most contentious components has come to a test. Remember when Senator Lindsey Graham held up the conclusion of the negotiations on the landmark $38 billion military package because of the provision barring the Israeli government from lobbying Congress for more money. Senator Graham told BB in a phone call “the Obama administration can go f— themselves”? Well, Senator Graham might have gotten his revenge, because under the radar, he recently passed $3.175 billion for assistance to Israel under the Omnibus Appropriations bill for the remainder of FY2017 . This amount exceeds the commitment to the existing MOU by $75 million.
Last year, when Senator Graham’s objections were stalling the final announcement of the MOU, Netanyahu’s national security advisor, Yaakov Nagel, suggested to accompany the agreement with an Israeli appendix letter of commitment to return any extra funding allocated by Congress during 2017-2018, the two years remaining in the current MOU package. The President already signed the Omnibus appropriations bill, so now, the question is whether Israel will need to live up to its commitment and refund the excess appropriation. Several well informed sources told Kafe Knesset the incident “is somewhat embarrassing.” One of them added: “Trump may not demand the money back, and both sides can always claim that this is a commitment given to the Obama administration and does not apply to relations with the Trump administration. But it will also be difficult for Netanyahu to keep the money, because it undermines a written commitment he made, and Israel usually abides by these kinds of commitments.”
The tweet that launched 1,000 takes: While discussing the details of Trump’s upcoming trip, and how he moved his speech from Masada to the Israel Museum, more than one source in the Knesset wondered aloud to Kafe Knesset: Could the news that POTUS leaked to Russia highly classified information that came from Israel lead to the trip being called off? So I tweeted: “Government sources are speculating to me that Trump’s visit may be canceled.” Well, over 1,000 retweets later, the trip is still on, but the reverberations of the tweet went far and wide, within the Israeli political world and in the American and Israeli media. So much so, that a clarification and an emphasis on the word “speculation” were necessary. The chances that the trip will be canceled by Israel are slim to nonexistent. As damaging as the leak may be – which is hard to evaluate despite the bombastic headlines coming from the US – Israel has more to lose than to gain from a cancelation.
Confidentiality lock-down: Coincidentally, the Knesset House Committee had a meeting this morning about keeping secret information under wraps. The meeting was planned long ago in response to MKs leaking details of closed door meetings to the press – but the timing is pretty impeccable considering that Israel is dealing with the fallout of Trump leaking confidential information it gave him. In any case, from now on, MKs will be asked to sign a form at the beginning of confidential committee meetings saying they know the rules of information security. They cannot legally be held to what they signed, because of their parliamentary immunity, but it’s meant to serve as a reminder. In addition, leaking secret or top-secret information will be considered an ethics violation, which means that repeat offenders could be suspended from the Knesset or even have their salaries docked.