WASHINGTON - The White House said Friday that U.S. President Trump and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu are expected to meet on March 5th, when Netanyahu will be in Washington to attend the annual AIPAC conference. Officials in Jerusalem confirmed the meeting was on the books.
This will be the second time the two will meet since Trump decided to recognize Jerusalem as Israel's capital, a decision that has heightened Washington's tensions with the Arab world and has threatened peace talks with Palestinians, who now refuse to accept the U.S. as a mediator in the process. Trump and Netanyahu met on the sidelines of the Davos Economic Forum. At the time, Trump said his decision had "taken Jerusalem off the [negotiating] table."
The Trump administration is continuing to work on its plan for peace between Israel and the Palestinians despite the recent recommendations by the Israeli police to indict Netanyahu for bribery in two separate cases. A White House official told Haaretz on Friday that the police recommendations "won't impact the content or timing of the plan."
During a visit in Kuwait on Tuesday as part of his Middle East tour, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said that the United States hopes to see Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas resume his contacts with the Trump administration on a possible Israeli-Palestinian peace plan. Tillerson added that he "understands" some of Abbas' concerns about recent decisions made by the administration, but emphasized that the U.S. remains committed to reaching a peace deal.
Earlier this week, the State Department also said that the police recommendations are an "internal Israeli matter" that the United States government isn't going to comment on. The quote by the White House official makes it clear, however, that this issue is not going to change how the administration constructs its peace plan, or when it is going to release it to the world.
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The White House also denied a statement that Netanyahu made in front of members of his Likud faction in the Knesset, saying that he was discussing settlement annexation in the West Bank with the U.S. A White House spokesperson said that any reports that the United States was discussing annexation with Israel were false. Netanyahu quickly retracted his own statement in light of the reaction from Washington.
One reason for the administration's rare expression of distance from Netanyahu was the fact that for the entire week, Tillerson was in the Middle East, visiting five countries in the region and discussing a range of issues with regional leaders. One that came up frequently in his conversations was the administration's plan for Middle East peace.
Tillerson assured the regional leaders he met, including the king of Jordan and the presidents of Egypt and Turkey, that the United States under Presidend Donald Trump remains fully committed to achieving a lasting peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians. He also sent a message to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who has been refusing to work with the Trump administration for two months now, following Trump's recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital.
Tillerson said he still hopes the Palestinian leader will "find the way to return to the table."