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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s visit to the Trump White House this week will give him an opportunity to divert attention from a widening corruption probe to a stage where he can showcase achievements.
But while he is sure to trumpet successes such as winning US recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, behind the scenes he’ll be struggling to muster American support on a much more urgent issue: keeping Iran and its proxies in check across the northern border with Syria.
Netanyahu wants to see “the concrete terms of what they’re going to do to make sure that Iran doesn’t transform Syria into a forward base against Israel,” said Michael Oren, deputy minister for public diplomacy and a former ambassador to Washington. He’ll be looking for “something more than a statement,” he said.
As seven years of Syrian fighting approach a probable conclusion, Iran is trying to consolidate gains it achieved as Syrian President Basher al-Assad’s chief on-the-ground ally. Israel, which considers Iran its top foe, doesn’t want Tehran to establish a permanent military presence near the Israeli-held Golan Heights, and has been disappointed by Washington’s failure to block it. Without support from the U.S. or Russia, whose air force has turned the war’s tide in Assad’s favor, Israeli leaders will be left with a tough choice: Tolerate Iran on their doorstep, or risk going to war to prevent it.
Netanyahu, who arrives in Washington on Sunday, will also seek to coordinate strategy to press to revise the 2015 nuclear deal between world powers and Iran, Oren said. Israel backed Trump’s threat to pull out of the accord in May unless European parties to it agree to new limits on Iran’s nuclear activities and ballistic missile program.
Before his plane took off Sunday, Netanyahu said his first priority in talks with Trump was to discuss Iran’s “aggression, its nuclear aspirations, and its aggressive actions in the Middle East in general and on our borders.” Iran says its nuclear program is peaceful.
Netanyahu travels to Washington at one of the most difficult points in his political career, with Israel’s attorney general weighing whether to act on police recommendations to put him on trial for corruption. He says he is the innocent victim of a witch hunt, sharing common ground with Trump, who has denounced the expanding inquiry into his presidential campaign’s ties to Russia as a sham.
“They both are under investigation and they both have shown contempt for the investigators,” said Yoram Meital, director of the Chaim Herzog Center for Middle East Studies and Diplomacy at Israel’s Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. “It’s a bonding thing.”
Netanyahu, whose meeting with the president this week will be the fifth since Trump took office, can usually depend on lavish praise from the US leader after eight years of friction with former President Barack Obama. Moving the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv is a break from 70 years of foreign policy that has delighted their Jewish and evangelical Christian supporters.
“This is a victory lap for both of them,” said David Makovsky, a former member of the Obama’s Mideast negotiating team.
Still, as Netanyahu’s legal entanglements mounted in recent weeks, Israel-Palestinian peace efforts became a stage for a rare sign of public friction between the two leaders. Trump told an Israeli newspaper that he is “not necessarily sure that Israel is looking to make peace,” and the White House denied Netanyahu’s reported claim that he had discussed annexing part of the West Bank with the U.S. administration.
Netanyahu’s legal woes and the political toll they’ve taken may allow Trump to smell weakness -- to twist the prime minister’s arm in an effort to win concessions that could bring the Palestinians back to the negotiating table. “He and members of his administration have said frequently that there are going to be parts of this plan that are difficult for Israel,” Oren said.
‘Dead on Arrival’
Trump’s Middle East peace plan may be put on hold, however, in part because of Palestinian opposition to his Jerusalem declaration. The Palestinians seek the eastern sector of the city for the capital of a future state, and have stopped talking to the White House over the move.
“It’s dead on arrival for sure,” said Zaha Hassan, a fellow at the New America think tank in Washington and former legal adviser to the Palestinian negotiating team. While details have not been revealed, Hassan says it’s evident the Trump blueprint won’t enable Palestinians to establish a full-fledged independent state. “It would be more of a souped-up version of the status quo,” she said.
The peace plan may also run into turbulence over the downgrading of lead negotiator Jared Kushner’s security clearance. One reason for the downgrade was that officials in Israel and at least three other countries privately discussed ways to manipulate Kushner, a foreign policy neophyte who is Trump’s son-in-law, the Washington Post reported.