WASHINGTON – After a longer-than-usual absence of 15 months, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu returns to Washington D.C. Following eight years during which every visit to the American capital and every meeting with then-President Barack Obama was accompanied by drama, confrontation, tension and crisis, the present visit has all the potential to be completely different – if not in terms of political substance, at least in style, atmosphere and the impression that Wednesday's meeting at the White House will leave on Israeli and U.S. public opinion.
Notwithstanding the list of serious political and security issues on the agenda, Netanyahu is looking for a victory photo. And the White House is doing everything to help him achieve this. For example, throughout his visit Netanyahu will stay at the official hospitality venue, Blair House, whose gates were locked to him in recent years both because the building underwent a thorough renovation but also because of his tense relations with the Obama administration. Netanyahu, who doesn’t hide his joy at the honor Trump is bestowing on him, diligently shared his photos from Blair House on his Twitter and Facebook accounts.
The Trump administration’s efforts to produce the maximal positive impression do not stop there. Netanyahu is expected to be received at the White House in an exceptional way with an honor guard, and U.S. President Donald Trump is expected to welcome him as he exits his car. The pair will also make joint proclamations to the cameras, during which it can be assumed that they will shower each other with compliments. The two leaders will hold a joint press conference after the meeting and lunch.
Netanyahu landed in Washington Tuesday morning, straight into an unprecedented internal crisis in the White House following the resignation of Trump’s national security adviser, Mike Flynn. Flynn was a central figure in preparing for the meeting between Trump and Netanyahu and a crucial figure in forming American policy toward Iran.
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Mossad head Yossi Cohen and acting Israeli National Security Adviser Jacob Nagel had met twice with Flynn since Trump’s election victory. The first round of talks was in early December, and the second round in mid-January, a few days before Trump was sworn in as president. In both rounds, Cohen and Nagel briefed Flynn on a list of security, political and strategic matters and shared with him Israeli intelligence assessments regarding issues such as Iran’s nuclear program, the civil war in Syria and the Palestinian issue.
On Friday and Monday the third round of talks between Nagel and Flynn was held to complete preparations for the meeting between Netanyahu and Trump. It is still unclear how Flynn’s resignation will affect the meeting, but in light of the pivotal role he had in preparing for the summit and the White House’s need to find a solution to the crisis it produced, the resignation is certainly liable to cast a shadow over the meeting.
On Tuesday Netanyahu and his advisers concentrated on preparing for the summit. Some of the preparatory discussions were held Tuesday night at the Israeli embassy in Washington, and not at Blair House, mainly due to fear of wiretapping.
As with Netanyahu’s first meeting with Obama in May 2009, in his first meeting with President Trump the primary issue, from Netanyahu’s perspective, will be Iran. Netanyahu is not bringing a demand, request or suggestion to cancel the nuclear agreement. He well understands that Trump is not interested in such a move now, and also understands that this will not serve Israel’s interests. Israeli officials pointed out that Netanyahu only wants to strengthen the present trend in which the U.S. is intensifying the pressure on Tehran.
During a meeting of the diplomatic-security cabinet on Sunday, Interior Minister Aryeh Dery ironically suggested to the prime minister that he not speak with Trump about the Iran, because the president is increasingly bearing down on the Iranians anyway. Netanyahu politely refused Dery’s suggestion. He explained that Iranian President Hassan Rohani, who called Trump a “political amateur,” and Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, who called him an “idiot" have not yet internalized the new reality.
“They are endangering themselves,” Netanyahu said. “They haven’t understood that you don’t mess with us [Netanyahu and Trump].”
Senior Israeli officials noted that Netanyahu will speak with Trump about stiffening U.S. and international enforcement of the nuclear agreement, about using the agreement’s mechanisms for increasing supervision of the Iranians that have not been used, and of course imposing further sanctions against Iran in everything relating to subversive activity in the region and for its support of terror organizations. But more important than all those, Netanyahu will want to begin talking with Trump about deployment for the day after the agreement – about American and Israeli policy regarding Iran in another eight to 10 years.
Netanyahu and Trump’s attitude toward Iran is much closer than that of Netanyahu and Obama. For the new American president, however, Israel is a minor actor compared with the other powers signed on the agreement, especially Russia. Like Obama in his first meeting with Netanyahu, Trump will want to hear the prime minister’s ideas and plans regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and settlements.
During Sunday’s diplomatic-security cabinet session, Netanyahu clarified that he does not intend to bring the agenda of Habayit Hayehudi leader Naftali Bennett to his meeting with Trump. Ideas such as annexing settlements or deserting the principles of the Bar-Ilan University speech and the two-state solution will not enter the Oval Office. The more time that elapses since Trump’s entry to the White House, it is becoming clear that senior officials in the new administration, notably Defense Secretary James Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, support the two-state solution. If General David Petraeus succeeds Flynn as national security adviser, this trend will strengthen.
Netanyahu will try to reach the closest possible coordination with the Americans regarding settlement construction and how to proceed in negotiations with the Palestinians. Already on Sunday he dispatched his special envoy, Yitzhak Molho, for discussions with Trump’s adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner, who is expected to be involved in the Israeli-Palestinian issue, and Tillerson, who is also expected to play a major part on this front.
According to Israeli officials, Netanyahu hopes Trump will support a regional peace initiative in which the Palestinians will be only one part of a wider arrangement. Obama did not support such a move because he did not trust Netanyahu.
The prime minister would like Trump to help get not only Egypt and Jordan, but also Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, on board. A regional peace summit could be an idea that will serve both Netanyahu and Trump, who would present it as a meaningful diplomatic achievement. While the Trump administration is still forming its Middle East policy, the impression is that Kushner and other senior administration officials like the idea and want to promote it.
On the flight to the U.S., Netanyahu didn't talk to reporters on board. Landing in Andrews Field near Washington Netanyahu told Channel 2 that he has "only good expectations" out of his meeting with Trump. On Wednesday night, Israel time, we'll see if these expectations came true.
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