U.S., Israel Reject Claims Relationship Strained, Deny Closed Door Shouting Match

Trump admin, Israel shoot down reports of disagreement over combatting Hezbollah

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks with President Donald Trump in Tel Aviv on May 23
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks with President Donald Trump in Tel Aviv on May 23 / Getty Images
September 14, 2017

Senior U.S. and Israeli officials deny the relationship between the two countries has been strained over differences in how to deal with the threat of Hezbollah, according to multiple senior government officials from both countries who told the Washington Free Beacon that recent reports of a yelling match between senior Trump administration and Israeli government officials are false.

Recent media reports allege the Trump administration and Israel have been in conflict over the best way to deal with the threat posed by Hezbollah, an Iranian-backed terror organization that has played a major role in bolstering embattled Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Tensions are said to have come to a head during a high-level August meeting between the countries in which White House National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster is alleged to have yelled at his Israeli counterparts and dismissed concerns about Hezbollah being a terror organization—a charge that multiple senior U.S. and Israeli officials denied in conversations with the Free Beacon.

Further allegations that the Israeli delegation asked White House National Security Council staffer Mustafa Javed Ali to leave the room over concerns that he does not view Hezbollah as a terror organization also are being called untrue, according to both U.S. and Israeli officials who were present in the Aug. 17 meeting.

A copy of the official list of U.S. and Israeli officials participating in the high-level meeting shows that Ali was never scheduled to attend, according to a copy of that list viewed by the Free Beacon.

The situation is being portrayed in the U.S. and Israeli media as further proof of tension between McMaster's NSC and their Israeli counterparts.

The issue of Hezbollah's rise in the region—and the direct threat this poses to Israel as Iranian-backed forces gather closer to its borders—has been a mainstay of ongoing dialogue between the United States and Israel, with multiple senior Trump administration sources telling the Free Beacon that McMaster's NSC fully agrees with Israel's concerns and supports Hezbollah's designation as a global terrorist organization.

Michael Anton, spokesman for the White House NSC, denied that McMaster ever yelled at his Israeli counterparts and described multiple media reports claiming otherwise as flatly untrue.

Anton further disclosed to the Free Beacon that, as part of a renewed push to counter Hezbollah's influence in the region, McMaster "has directed the NSC staff to look at ways the U.S. can be more aggressive in its posture towards Hezbollah."

The effort to counter Hezbollah, which is supported by the Israelis, is "a major element of our Iran strategy," according to Anton, who described this policy as directed at ensuring that Iran and it's terror proxies do not retain a permanent foothold in Syria, where they would "endanger Israel's borders."

Anton further knocked down allegations that NSC aide Ali was asked to leave the meeting by the Israelis, telling the Free Beacon that he was never scheduled to participate in the discussions and was not present at any point.

Senior Israeli officials independently confirmed to the Free Beacon that recent media reports about the tension are false.

"Israel never asked for Mustafa Ali to not attend a meeting on Hezbollah, Syria, or any other matter," Itai Bardov, spokesperson for the Israeli Embassy in Washington, told the Free Beacon. "Israel is not aware of any Trump administration official that does not consider Hezbollah a terror organization, and Gen. McMaster never yelled at Israeli officials."

"The allegations in the article relating to Israel are totally false," Bardov said, adding, "Israel appreciates Gen. McMaster efforts to strengthen the U.S.-Israel relationship and looks forward to continuing to work closely with the Trump administration to counter the threats posed by Iran and its terror proxy Hezbollah."

A copy of the internal White House list of those participating in the meeting confirms comments from the senior U.S. and Israeli officials.

The meeting included McMaster, Homeland Security Adviser Tom Bossert, senior NSC official Dina Powell, senior White House Israel adviser Jason Greenblatt, senior NSC official Victoria Coates, CIA Director Mike Pompeo, and Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, among several others.

Ali is not included on the list, as initial reports claimed.

On the Israeli side, participants included Israeli Ambassador to the United States Ron Dermer, Mossad Director Yosef Cohen, Israeli Defense Intelligence Chief Maj. Gen. Herzi Halevi, Acting Israeli National Security Adviser Eytan Ben-David, Israeli Defense and Armed Forces Attaché to the United States Maj. Gen. Michael Edelstein, and other Israeli embassy personnel, according to the list viewed by the Free Beacon.

In a high-level meeting such as this, it would be atypical for an official such as Ali to participate.

One senior Trump administration official who participated in the meeting further disclosed to the Free Beacon that the United States added one more official at the last moment: Sigal Mandelker, the undersecretary of treasury for terrorism and financial intelligence.

The addition was meant to let the Israeli delegation know the Trump administration is serious about tackling Hezbollah, and the inclusion of Mandelker signaled the Trump administration is using all avenues to target the terror group, including sanctions, according to senior administration sources.

"Kind of a funny person to add if you're going to argue Hezbollah isn't a terrorist group," said one senior NSC official. "The Israelis were delighted to see her because her presence demonstrated Gen. McMaster's key point—Hezbollah is of course a terrorist organization but the problem is compounded because they have grown into so much more—so straight [counter-terrorism] isn't going to work against them."

Bossert's inclusion in the meeting was meant to signal that counter-terrorism remains a priority, but McMaster and other NSC officials believe "we also need all the other tools we have at our disposal," according to the senior administration official.

"So it's not that he [McMaster] disputes they are terrorists, and it's not that he disputes the fact that they are a terrible threat—both to Israel and to us. He was simply pointing out the full scope of that threat," the official explained, noting that given the nature of the subject matter, the discussions were "certainly intense," but it was "a meeting of close friends and allies."

Senior Trump administration sources further took exception to portrayals in the media that NSC official Ali is an enemy of Israel and that he remains sympathetic to Hezbollah.

Ali has been accused in the past of attempting to block human rights advocate Ayaan Hirsi Ali from attending a meeting at the White House—a charge U.S. officials familiar with the matter flatly denied.

Hirsi Ali, in fact, did meet with NSC staff at the White House.

Other rumors claiming that NSC official Ali once worked for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, or CAIR, a Muslim advocacy group hostile to Israel, also are untrue, according to senior NSC sources, who told the Free Beacon that Ali has flatly denied the charges in conversations with U.S. officials.