FULL ANALYSIS: Russia Leak a Blip on the Radar for Robust US-Israel Defense Ties, Experts Say


By Yaakov Lappin

Just as President Donald Trump was implementing his reset of U.S. ties with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who had a relatively turbulent relationship with the preceding Obama administration, Israel suddenly found its way into Trump’s recent controversial revelation of classified information to Russia.

Yet experts believe the Russia incident, which blurred the lines between the diplomatic and defense worlds, does not threaten the robust intelligence-sharing and broader defense relationship between America and Israel.

U.S.-Israel defense ties have grown steadier with time, unaffected by episodes of diplomatic turbulence. In particular, intelligence-sharing between Jerusalem and Washington has reached an all-time high. Israel uses its unrivaled intelligence coverage of the Middle East to assist the U.S. in a range of classified ways. For its part, the U.S. offers crucial financial support to many Israeli defense programs.

U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford (front, left) is welcomed to Israel, May 8. In front, second from left, is IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gadi Eizenkot. Credit: Matty Stern/U.S. Embassy Tel Aviv.

From 2019-2028, the U.S. will provide Israel with $3.8 billion in annual military aid, according to a Memorandum of Understanding signed last year by the outgoing Obama administration. Annual American defense aid to Israel currently stands at $3.1 billion.

High-level mutual visits by defense officials are frequent, such as the May 8 trip to Israel by U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford, who met with IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gadi Eizenkot to discuss sensitive strategic issues, share intelligence and formulate plans.

U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford (right) meets with IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gadi Eizenkot in Israel, May 8. Credit: Matty Stern/U.S. Embassy Tel Aviv.

The defense industries in both countries cooperate in the production and development of many game-changing military systems. Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) produces wings for Lockheed Martin’s F-35A fighter jets. Israel’s Elbit Systems produces cutting-edge helmets for F-35 planes, allowing pilots to access data in new ways and to peer through cockpits in 360 degrees. America’s Raytheon and Israel’s Rafael defense companies collaborate to produce the David’s Sling intermediate air defense system. IAI is working with U.S. defense giant Boeing to develop the Arrow 3 ballistic missile defense shield, which will be able to intercept missiles outside of the Earth’s atmosphere.

In June 2016, the U.S. Army chose Israel Military Industries to supply a protection system, Iron Fist, for defending American armored personnel carriers. The U.S. has a powerful long-range radar system stationed in Israel’s Negev desert. America’s European Command regularly sends navy ships equipped with air defense systems to Israel, to train with the IDF on how to intercept rocket and missile attacks.

While U.S.-Israel defense ties are ironclad, what happens when there is a crack in the armor? It’s a natural question following President Trump’s much-discussed meeting with senior Russian officials in mid-May, when Trump purportedly disclosed highly sensitive details of an Islamic State terrorism plot. Israel was reportedly the source of the classified information Trump shared with Russia.

Some ensuing reports claimed America’s ability to keep Israel’s secrets was in doubt, representing a major crisis in trust. Russia’s alliance with two of Israel’s worst enemies—Iran and Hezbollah—meant the classified information could have ended up in the worst hands, the reports noted.

Jerusalem kept silent on the issue for days, until Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman broke the ice May 24 by telling Israel’s Army Radio, “Everything that we needed to clarify with our friends in the United States has been done.”

The Russia incident will not overshadow ongoing U.S.-Israel cooperation, said Maj. Gen. (res.) Yaakov Amidror, the former head of Israel’s National Security Council.

“In my humble opinion, the leak will not have any effect on the defense and intelligence ties between Israel and the U.S.,” Amidror told JNS.org. “This is a passing episode that will be handled by professionals, without substantial impact.”

Similarly, Prof. Efraim Inbar, the former director of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Israel’s Bar-Ilan University, said the leak “will not have an influence, because cooperation in the intelligence field is important for both countries.”

Netanyahu announced May 24 that the U.S. increased its assistance package for Israel’s missile defense programs by $75 million, on top of the $400 million already pledged. The U.S. made a commitment to “safeguard Israel’s qualitative edge in the Middle East,” said Netanyahu, in a likely reference to the recent $110 billion U.S. arms sale to Saudi Arabia.

The American-Saudi deal prompted concerns in Israel, as chronic instability in the region means that if Saudi Arabia’s kingdom falls to hostile fundamentalist forces in the future, cutting-edge Western arms could fall into the wrong hands.

Yet Inbar was optimistic about the sale, telling JNS.org, “Riyadh is busy, mainly with the Iranian threat, and sees Israel as a country that is also disturbed by Iran. In addition, Saudi Arabia’s military capabilities are not especially impressive, despite its recent willingness to use force.”

Moving forward, Inbar said the “good defense cooperation [between the U.S. and Israel] will continue in the Trump era, and some of the constraints placed by the previous political leaderships might be lifted.”