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While Overseas, Trump Aims To Shore Up Relations With Isreal


It's President Trump's last day in Saudi Arabia. And shortly, he will be addressing the leaders of many Muslim majority countries. The president is then headed to Israel.

Joining us now is Daniel Kurtzer. He served as ambassador to Israel under President George W. Bush and ambassador to Egypt under President Clinton. He is now a professor of Middle Eastern policy studies at Princeton University. Thank you so much for speaking with us this morning.

DANIEL KURTZER: My pleasure.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So what do you think the president is trying to accomplish with this visit?

KURTZER: Well, he is going to achieve pretty much all of his aims. Number one, he's gotten a royal treatment, a recognition, which is a far cry from what he's received in Washington recently. Second, the signing of these large defense contracts reaffirm the U.S.-Saudi security relationship. And third, it's a focus on security, which he can come back and tell the American people has been his major concern.

At the same time, the Saudis have gotten what they wanted. The president is not going to bother them about human rights or women's rights. The president is focused on Iran, as they are, and he's not going to disturb them with respect to their activities in Yemen. So this trip is right now fated to succeed as far as the president is concerned.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, let's turn to Israel. Trump heads to Israel tomorrow. And a big issue for both Saudi Arabia and Israeli leaders is Iran. We saw Secretary Tillerson and the foreign minister of Saudi Arabia yesterday use very similar language in condemning Iran.

It seems we're seeing a profound policy shift from the Obama years. That's good news for Israel and the government of Netanyahu, which frankly hated the Iran deal, isn't it?

KURTZER: Oh, for sure. On the Iran issue, the president and Prime Minister Netanyahu will see eye to eye. The president will focus most of his attention on Iranian behaviors outside the nuclear agreement because it looks as though he does not intend to pull the United States from that agreement but rather to look at Iran's missile development support for terrorism, its activities in Syria and Yemen. And the tougher he talks and acts towards Iran, the happier the Israelis will be. The tough part of the Israeli agenda is going to be on the peace process.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The peace process. He is expected to get a warm welcome however, but there is something hanging over this which was the report last week that Trump may have leaked highly classified material from a U.S. ally - i.e. Israel - to Russian officials during a meeting in the Oval Office.

Do you think that will have an impact on the relationship with Israel? I was reading Ronen Bergman, the noted Israeli journalist who covers intelligence there, and he wrote that Israel's intelligence chiefs are up in arms even if Israel's government is downplaying the issue. What's your view?

KURTZER: Well, I think it's a professional matter. This is quite serious. It was really unprecedented for a president to basically hand over third-party very sensitive intelligence especially to the Russians. I mean, all of it makes no sense. But I think the two leaders will keep it off the agenda, rather they'll keep it in the professional channel.

And the Israeli intelligence community will want to know what safeguards we're putting into effect to try to prevent this from happening in the future - by cleaning up the intelligence, by seeking their permission to use things that they've handed to us, those kinds of things. But I think it'll stay out of the political discussion.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah. What is confusing for many people though is when you look at the accusations last week against President Trump giving sensitive information to the Russians, the issue is if you want to be close to Israel, you certainly don't give Israeli intelligence to the Russians, who are allied with Assad and Iran. I mean, don't you think this is going to be a bigger deal?

KURTZER: Well, actually no. Had the intelligence been cleaned up - what I mean by that is you take out any information that could reference sources and methods - then the president might want to use it as a method of getting something from the Russians, in this case more active involvement against ISIS.

So that the mere fact of sharing some information with the Russians is not really the problem, it's the quality of what he did and the fact that the information came from a third party and could compromise some very sensitive sources. That's really quite dangerous in the intelligence business.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Thank you. That was Daniel Kurtzer, professor of Middle Eastern studies at Princeton University. Thank you.

KURTZER: OK. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.