Trailed by legal woes, Netanyahu to meet ‘true friend’ Trump

March 3, 2018 2:41 pm
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A couple takes a selfie in front of graffiti by street artist Lushsux depicting US President Donald Trump kissing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on the wall between Bethlehem and Jerusalem © AFP/File / Musa AL SHAER

, JERUSALEM, ZZZ, Mar 3 – Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will have a brief respite next week from the deluge of legal woes he faces when he heads to Washington to meet US President Donald Trump.

Even as he prepared for his trip, Netanyahu was again questioned by police in Jerusalem on Friday in connection with alleged corruption as concerns mount over whether he will eventually be forced from office.

Monday’s visit to a White House that has shown enthusiastic support for Israel and Netanyahu may help bolster the long-serving prime minister, who has called Trump a “true friend” of his country.

Both men have used populist appeals in the face of investigations, with Netanyahu borrowing Trump’s “fake news” moniker to denounce reports of his alleged corruption.

Israeli police recommended last month that Netanyahu be indicted in two corruption cases and investigations are continuing in others.

“I think they are partners in ideology, and the ideology is a populist, conservative ideology which says that the old liberal elites are against us,” said Gayil Talshir, political scientist at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University.

“I think from that perspective it is a boost” for Netanyahu.

But Trump has given Netanyahu far more than moral support.

The United States is set to upturn decades of international consensus when it moves its embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to the disputed city of Jerusalem in May.

US President Donald Trump (R) shakes hands with Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, eastern Switzerland, on January 25, 2018 © AFP / Nicholas Kamm

Trump has also frozen tens of millions of dollars in aid to the Palestinians in a bid to force them to the negotiating table.

Both moves have left the Palestinian leadership outraged, accusing Trump’s administration of blatant bias and declaring it can no longer serve as mediator in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

That, along with Trump son-in-law and senior aide Jared Kushner losing his top-level security clearance, has raised questions over whether Trump’s pledge to reach the “ultimate” peace deal will get off the ground any time soon.

Kushner has been among those heading up the White House’s efforts to restart Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

– ‘Prestige problem’ –

Netanyahu may not be troubled by any such delay.

He appears more interested in speaking with Trump about other issues, such as Israel’s arch-enemy Iran and its influence in neighbouring Syria.

He will likely seek to further push his case that the Iran nuclear deal between Tehran and world powers should be changed, said Zalman Shoval, a former Israeli ambassador to Washington.

“Israel, I think, is hoping that there will be a more active American role in trying to block, trying to stem, the Iranian advances in Syria,” Shoval said.

Beyond his meeting with Trump, Netanyahu will address a conference organised by powerful pro-Israel lobbying group AIPAC during his trip after having done so by satellite link the last two years.

The speech, expected on Tuesday, comes as Netanyahu faces what some in Israel see as an important concern: a growing divide between Republicans and Democrats over support for his country, according to at least one recent poll.

The United States remains by far Israel’s most important ally, providing it with more than $3 billion per year in defence aid and key diplomatic backing.

But poll results released in January by the US-based Pew Research Centre showed 79 percent of Republicans sympathise more with Israel than the Palestinians, while 27 percent of Democrats said the same.

Although Netanyahu may want to avoid talk about the Palestinians during his trip, the decades-long conflict is certain to be on the agenda.

Trump has spoken of wanting to reach the elusive Israeli-Palestinian deal that repeated US presidents have been unable to achieve.

At the same time, many analysts have trouble seeing how progress can be made with the Palestinians angered and a pressured Netanyahu playing to his right-wing base — not to mention Kushner no longer able to access America’s most closely guarded secrets.

Aaron David Miller, a former US Middle East negotiator now with the Wilson Centre think-tank, said Kushner faces a “prestige problem”, but that may make little difference.

“The Arab-Israeli peace process right now is so fraught, so challenged, so burdened with complexity and problems that Jared Kushner could have access to every piece of classified information in the world,” he said.

“It would not help him significantly broker a deal.”

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