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Ahead of Netanyahu meet, Trump says 'may' come to Jerusalem embassy opening

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets US President Donald Trump at the White House on March 5 2018. They are accompanied by their wives Sara Netanyahu (L) and Melania Trump.
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Netanyahu and Trump hailed the strength of the Israel-US relationship

US President Donald Trump said he is "thinking about" visiting Israel for the opening of the new US embassy in Jerusalem in May and affirmed his administration is still working "very hard" on an Israeli-Palestinian peace plan ahead of his meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday.

Netanyahu -- struggling under a deluge of political scandals at home -- heaped effusive praise on his US counterpart as they addressed the media ahead of closed-door talks, comparing his decision to move the US embassy to Jerusalem to key milestones in Jewish history dating back to King Cyrus.

"President, this will be remembered by our people," a beaming Netanyahu said in the Oval Office, comparing Trump to ex-President Harry Truman, Lord Balfour and others.

"Others talked about it, you did it," he said of Trump's December decision to move the US embassy to Jerusalem, upending decades-long American policy on the holy city, which is claimed by both Israelis and Palestinians their capital. 

Peppered with questions from journalists, Trump revealed an "order" had been put on his desk putting the cost of moving the US embassy from Tel Aviv at $1 billion.

"I said we’re not going to do that for [$1bn], we’re going to that for $250,000," Trump said, adding that he "may" attend the embassy opening ahead of Israel's Independence Day on May 14.

"If I can, I will," Trump said, declaring that relations with Israel have "never been better."

Nicholas Kamm (AFP)

The meeting is their fifth over the past year, having last met in January on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

Iran's deployment of missiles in Syria appear set to be at the center of talks between the leaders, with Netanyahu expected to raise concern over Tehran’s continuing entrenchment in the country.

Both Israel and the US have expressed mutual opposition to the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, which they argue should be amended as it has emboldened the Islamic Republic.

In their remarks, Netanyahu said that the challenges facing the Middle East "can be encapsulated in one word: Iran."

US officials are expected to raise with Netanyahu the Trump administration’s highly anticipated Middle East peace proposal. Reports have said that the plan could be unveiled in the coming weeks.

Trump addressed the Palestinian boycott of his peace team -- triggered by the embassy decision -- saying that "I think the Palestinians are wanting to come back to the table very badly."

He said if they do not, "there will be no peace."

"I can tell you we are working very hard on [the peace plan] and I think we have a very good chance," he added.

Netanyahu said that "the Arabs have never been closer to Israel; Israel has never been closer to the Arab states. And we seek also to broaden that peace to the Palestinians."

During an interview with the Israel Hayom newspaper last month, Trump said the plan would require both sides to “make hard compromises.” Trump’s envoy to the United Nations Nikki Haley, meanwhile, revealed last month that the plan “won't be loved by either side” nor “hated by either side.”

The Palestinian Authority, meanwhile, will reportedly reject the plan out of hand.

Musa AL SHAER (AFP/File)

The Palestinians have been seeking out alternative peace partners to the US since Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, a move deemed as biased and jeopardizing Washington’s long standing role as impartial mediator in the conflict. Abbas has been making inroads with the EU and Russia among others in an effort to secure their support.

Tensions worsened when Trump announced last week that the embassy relocation will coincide with Israel’s 70th anniversary celebration, a day also marked by the Palestinians as the ‘Nakba’ (or ‘Day of Catastrophe’).

Netanyahu will also meet with a top staff members including Trump’s son-in-law and point man on the Middle East peace process, Jared Kushner.

The visit will offer both Netanyahu and Trump to sidestep a flurry of scandals at home.

In a dramatic development to a myriad of corruption scandals plaguing Netanyahu and his inner circle, a third of the premier’s closest confidants inked a deal to turn state witness in an investigation into whether the owner of Israeli telecom giant Bezeq and Walla news website, Shaul Elovitch, allegedly received government concessions in favor of Bezeq in return for positive coverage of Netanyahu and his family.

Trump’s presidency, meanwhile, has been marred with controversy from day one amid allegations that his team colluded with foreign governments, namely Russia, during the Republican presidential campaign.

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