U.S. President Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will meet for the fifth time in a year at the White House on Monday. Here are the four key topics on their agenda and the elephant in the room they may look to discuss off-the-record...
Netanyahu says Iran tops his list of topics to discuss with Trump. “We will discuss Iranian aggression in our region in general, and especially with regard to the Iranian nuclear program,” Netanyahu said before jetting off for Washington late Saturday night. Trump has shared the Israeli premier’s disdain for the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) agreed by Trump’s predecessor in the White House, Barack Obama, and has already said he has signed his last sanctions waiver against Iran. He has put Congress and the U.S.’ European allies on notice that they have until May to make radical changes to the agreement. No one has rushed to pick up the baton, though, and the Iranians have poured scorn on Trump’s efforts to change the deal.
Tensions between Israel and Iran flared on Israel’s northern border last month when the Iranians launched a drone into Israeli airspace from Syria. Israel downed the drone and Netanyahu brought a piece of it to the Munich Security Conference, where he warned Iran not to “test” Israel’s resolve.
He also said that “through its proxies – Shi’ite militias in Iraq, the Houthis in Yemen, Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas in Gaza – Iran is devouring huge swaths of the Middle East.” Netanyahu will be hoping to rekindle the “America First” president’s interest in the Middle East.
2. Israel-Palestinian peace talks
U.S. officials are expected to raise the Trump administration’s forthcoming “peace deal” this week, while the Palestinians believe it’s actually Israel pressuring the Americans to publish their plan quickly. A senior Palestinian diplomat said over the weekend that, based on what Palestinians have been able to learn about the plan so far, the Palestinian Authority will reject it out of hand – enabling both Netanyahu and the U.S. administration to paint the Palestinians as the peace rejectionists. Palestinian diplomat Saeb Erekat said Friday that the American plan would “lead to the creation of one state with two systems, thus legitimizing apartheid and settlements.”
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Trump himself cast doubt last month on whether either side was interested in a peace deal. “Right now, I would say the Palestinians are not looking to make peace, they are not looking to make peace. And I am not necessarily sure that Israel is looking to make peace,” he told Israel Hayom.
One person with a keen personal interest in advancing peace talks is probably Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and special adviser. He has spent the past year working on a Mideast peace proposal, but was rarely out of the headlines over the past week for all the wrong reasons: He lost his “top-secret” security status in the White House, has reportedly been targeted by Israel and three other countries as being susceptible to exploitation due to his business affairs – which also came under renewed scrutiny concerning loans taken out by his family's real estate company last year. He could really do with a diplomatic success this week.
3. The U.S. Embassy move
Vice President Mike Pence used his Knesset speech in January to announce that the United States would move its Israeli embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem before the end of 2019. But last month U.S. officials said the move would actually take place in May, to coincide with Israel’s 70th birthday celebrations – a move seen as a major political coup for Netanyahu at a time when he is rarely out of the news for various police investigations.
Trump first announced his decision to move the U.S. Embassy last December, when he also said the Americans were recognizing Jerusalem as the Israeli capital – reversing a long-standing policy by world leaders in general, and U.S. presidents in particular. The announcement sparked protests in many Arab capitals and several weeks of unrest in the West Bank and Gaza.
Before flying out to Washington, Netanyahu promised that he would “discuss with Trump the possibility that he will open the new American embassy in Jerusalem” on May 14, 70 years to the day since the establishment of the Jewish state.
The embassy will temporarily be housed in the current U.S. Consulate building in south Jerusalem, with plans currently being drawn up to build a permanent embassy there in the coming years. Trump and Netanyahu will both look to extract as much political capital as possible from the move – Trump with evangelical Christians, Netanyahu with the Israeli settler lobby. Speaking of which...
4. Israeli settlements
There has been one dark cloud in the otherwise blue sky that is Trump-Netanyahu relations since the U.S. president was inaugurated in January 2017. That came last month, after the Israeli premier said the two sides had spoken about a specific proposal regarding Israeli annexation of Jewish settlements in the West Bank.
Within hours, the White House responded that such claims were false. “The United States and Israel have never discussed such a proposal, and the president’s focus remains squarely on his Israeli-Palestinian peace initiative,” White House spokesman Josh Raffel said.
According to figures close to Netanyahu, Jerusalem and Washington are coordinated on the issue and ascribe the “misunderstanding” to talks on the subject with the U.S. ambassador to Israel, David Friedman.
With several of his political rivals in Washington to speak at the AIPAC Policy Conference (including Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked from the pro-settler Habayit Hayehudi party) on March 4-6, Netanyahu will be hoping to position himself as the “settler’s friend” – especially with Friedman also in town.
5. Domestic distractions?
How much will Trump and Netanyahu compare notes about their own precarious political situations, with both at the center of long-running investigations that may lead to possible impeachment or criminal charges?
Netanyahu is clearly the most beleaguered of the two, with no fewer than four ongoing police investigations concerning alleged bribery and fraudulent actions. His Washington preparations were overshadowed by five-hour interrogations he and his wife, Sara Netanyahu, endured with police officers concerning the Case 4000 affair – where he is suspected of engaging in a quid pro quo with the owner of Bezeq, Israel’s largest telecoms company, in return for favorable coverage on the Walla news site it owns.
The police have already recommended indicting the prime minister for two separate cases of bribery, fraud and breach of trust. However, Netanyahu has repeatedly maintained his innocence, saying “there will be nothing, because there is nothing.”
Trump, meanwhile, has spent all of his time in the White House rejecting suggestions of collusion between his team and the Russians in the lead-up to the presidential election in 2016. Special Counsel Robert Mueller has already indicted Trump’s former campaign manager, Paul Manafort, and long since crossed Trump’s supposed “red line” of investigating the president’s business interests. Mueller is also currently investigating possible attempts by the United Arab Emirates to gain political influence by helping fund Trump’s presidential election campaign.