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Trailed by legal woes, Netanyahu departs for US to meet 'true friend' Trump

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
Musa AL SHAER (AFP/File)
The United States remains by far Israel's most important ally, providing it with more than $3 billion per year

Taking off for the US late Saturday night, 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. 

Shortly before jetting out of Tel Aviv's Ben Gurion Airport, Netanyahu said he was looking forward to again thanking Trump for his decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel's capital, and would press the need for a tough stance against Iran.

"We will discuss the Iranian aggression in our region in general, and especially with regard to the Iranian nuclear program," Netanyahu said in a statement.

"I will also discuss with the President the advancement of peace."

While being interviewed by local media ahead of boarding his US flight, the premier also insisted that there was "no need" to go into early elections amid a brewing coalition crisis as the Israeli government comes to blows over legislation regarding the exemption of ultra-orthodox Jews from serving in the army.

“There is no reason for us to go to early elections, and with goodwill that will not happen," he stated as quoted by local media in response to an earlier report in Hadoshot that alleged the country would be headed to the polls within months.

Along with his White House meeting, Netanyahu will address a conference organized by powerful pro-Israel lobbying group AIPAC during his trip after having done so by satellite link the last two years. He is almost certain to enjoy a hearty reception from the influential audience.

Much less warm is Netanyahu's domestic standing.

The premier was again questioned under caution by police in Jerusalem on Friday for five hours in parallel (simultaneously but separately) with his wife Sara over the Bezeq affair dubbed 'Case 4000', the most recent of his alleged corruption scandals, as speculation mounts over whether he will eventually be forced from office.

Nicholas Kamm (AFP)

The suspicions against Netanyahu in Case 4000 may be the most robust of the assortment ensnaring him, Hadashot TV reported on Friday, despite the fact that police already recommended indicting the prime minister last month for fraud, breach of trust, and bribery in two long-standing cases, '1000' and '2000'.

Israel's Channel 10 reported that police have recordings of Shaul Elovitch, the owner of Bezeq, and Ilan Yeshua, CEO of Bezeq's subsidiary news site Walla, discussing coverage of Netanyahu, reportedly constraining him to admit discussing the matter with Elovitch, though the prime minister denied ever offering favors in exchange for positive treatment.

Nevertheless, Netanyahu took little time to voice his usual refrain via social media: “more sure than ever before -- there will be nothing.”

Elovitch and his wife Iris -- who Sara Netanyahu was shown this week exchanging messages complaining of negative press coverage -- were also questioned at the same time, as police sought to prevent any collusion or obstructions to the ongoing investigation.

Trump a 'true friend'

Monday's visit to a White House that has demonstrated 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.

"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.

Ahikam SERI (AFP)

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 neighboring 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.

Netanyahu's AIPAC 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.

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

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

Meanwhile Netanyahu's coalition is engaged in political quarreling over the voting of Israel's 2019 budget.

But the US visit is likely to focus on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as Trump has spoken of wanting to reach the elusive deal that repeated American 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.

Moreover, there seems to be an important divide between the American administration and Netanyahu's government with regard to settlement issues in the West Bank.

Last month the two butted heads as the White House refuted claims by Netanyahu that he had conferred with the Americans over proposed legislation to annex the West Bank.

Yet the AIPAC forum is likely to welcome any suggestions by the Israeli premiere on the issue of legitimizing settlements.

The 2018 AIPAC policy conference will be held March 4-6 in Washington D.C.

US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley is slated to speak, as are Israeli Minister of Education Naftali Bennett, Minister of Justice Ayelet Shaked, Likud lawmaker Sharren Haskel, and opposition Zionist Union lawmaker Ksenia Svetlova.

(Staff with AFP)

Comments

(3)

..... and after 4000?

> 50% of so called dimms are crypto-socialists or crypto-communists!

Qui se ressemble, s'assemble

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