Israel leader’s White House trip clouded in uncertainty
JERUSALEM — Israel’s prime minister heads to Washington this week for a high-profile meeting with President Donald Trump that suddenly is clouded in uncertainty.
After embracing Israel’s hard-line nationalist right throughout his presidential campaign, Trump appears to have softened some of his positions on key issues since taking office.
Although Wednesday’s meeting is expected to be much warmer than Netanyahu’s famously tense encounters with former President Barack Obama, the Israeli leader will still need to tread with caution on sensitive issues like Israeli settlement construction and the conflict with the Palestinians, Iran and the war in Syria.
“It is a very important meeting. It is a new president,” said Sallai Meridor, a former Israeli ambassador to Washington. The “positive thing” is that Trump’s policies are still not set, he said, “so there is an opportunity to listen and to develop and to impact the strategy that is being developed in the United States.”
In dealing with such a divisive president, Netanyahu will also face some potential pitfalls. Key constituencies, including congressional Democrats and many American Jews, oppose Trump’s policies, while at home he is under pressure from his hard-line allies to push for policies that Trump may not support.
Ahead of the visit, Netanyahu said he would handle ties with the U.S., Israel’s closest and most important ally, in a “prudent manner,” but he steered clear of specifics.
“The alliance between Israel and America has always been extremely strong. It’s about to get even stronger. President Trump and I see eye to eye on the dangers emanating from the region, but also on the opportunities,” Netanyahu said Monday as he boarded a plane to Washington.
Malcolm Hoenlein, a Jewish-American leader who has close ties with both Netanyahu and White House officials, said Netanyahu should set modest goals for his first working meeting with the new president. He said the objective should be to establish a good working relationship in order to tackle concrete issues down the road.
“What I hope will come out of the meeting is this kind of understanding, putting the foundation very firmly in place,” he said.
Here are some of the issues that are likely to come up:
SETTLEMENTS AND THE PALESTINIANS
After repeatedly clashing with Obama for eight years, capped by a U.N. Security Council resolution condemning Israeli settlements, Netanyahu seemed relieved by Trump’s arrival.
Trump’s campaign platform made no mention of a Palestinian state, and his inner circle included allies of the West Bank settler movement. The connections were so strong that a delegation of settler leaders was invited to Trump’s inauguration.
Netanyahu responded by approving construction of more than 6,000 new settler homes in the West Bank and east Jerusalem — occupied territories claimed by the Palestinians — and allowing parliament to pass a law retroactively legalizing some 4,000 settlement homes built on private Palestinian land.
His political allies have urged him to go even further, suggesting he abandon the goal of a two-state solution with the Palestinians, step up settlement construction and even consider annexing parts of the West Bank. Such ideas would have been unthinkable during the Obama years.
“All the Cabinet ministers oppose a Palestinian state, including Netanyahu,” said Gilad Erdan, a Cabinet minister and member of Netanyahu’s Likud Party.
But the hard-line euphoria may be premature. After initially greeting Israel’s settlement announcements with a shrug, Trump appears to be having second thoughts. In an interview with a pro-Netanyahu Israeli daily on Friday, Trump said: “I am not somebody that believes that going forward with these settlements is a good thing for peace.”
Netanyahu may use the meeting to seek “understandings” as to what sort of construction will be tolerated. Backing from Trump could also help him fend off the pressure from his hard-line rivals.
THE U.S. EMBASSY
The U.S., like virtually all other countries, maintains its embassy in Tel Aviv due to the conflicting claims to east Jerusalem.
Israel claims all of the city as its eternal capital while the Palestinians seek the eastern sector, captured by Israel in 1967, as their future capital. The status of east Jerusalem is especially sensitive because it is home to Jewish, Christian and Muslim holy sites.
Trump took office vowing to scrap decades of U.S. policy and move the embassy to Jerusalem. But in recent weeks, he has been noncommittal, saying only that he is studying the issue.
The Palestinians have warned that moving the embassy would be explosive. Jordan, a key U.S. and Israeli ally that maintains custodial rights over Muslim holy sites in the city, has also strongly lobbied against the move.
While both men may pay lip service to an embassy move, it is unclear whether there will be any progress on the matter during the visit.
Before taking office, Trump vowed to “rip up” the international deal that placed limits on Iran’s nuclear program. But since then, he has backed away from those threats, while seeking other ways to put pressure on the Iranian government.
Netanyahu led an unsuccessful campaign to scuttle the Iranian deal. Although that now seems impossible, Netanyahu will be looking for American assurances to keep Iran in check.
Dennis Ross, a former U.S. peace negotiator, said Netanyahu could seek promises of a U.S. “military response and not just a sanctions response” if Iran moves toward nuclear weapons capability.
Netanyahu is also worried about Iran’s involvement in the civil war in neighboring Syria. With Russian backing, Iranian forces, and their Shiite proxy Hezbollah, have helped Syria gain the upper hand.
Ross said Netanyahu will ask Trump to use his influence with Russian President Vladimir Putin to keep Iran and Hezbollah far from Israel’s borders.
“I think at a minimum that there would be an understanding that the Trump administration will insist with Putin that an Iranian-Hezbollah-Shiite militia presence can’t go below a certain line within Syria,” Ross said.
Netanyahu has long said that bipartisan support is the basis of Israel’s relationship with the U.S. Yet he is widely perceived as being much more in line with the Republicans.
One of his closest friends is Republican mega-donor Sheldon Adelson, and his ambassador to Washington, Ron Dermer, is a former Republican operative.
Cozying up to Republican figures, while repeatedly clashing with Obama, appears to have had a price. A recent poll by the market research firm YouGov found that Republicans had a much more favorable view of Israel than Democrats. With Jewish voters overwhelmingly Democratic, this perception could threaten traditional Jewish American support for Israel.
Netanyahu’s schedule includes meetings with top Democrats in Congress, a step that Hoenlein welcomed. “It is very important to send the bipartisan message,” he said.