ANALYSIS: Netanyahu Aims to Embrace Trump in Visit Amid Corruption Scandals

WASHINGTON (The Washington Post) -
Trump Netanyahu
President Donald Trump and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu meeting in the White House in February 2017. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster, File)

No world leader has forged a closer or more public camaraderie with President Donald Trump than Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who visits the White House on Monday battling corruption allegations that have echoes in the White House itself.

Both leaders have sought to put their tight bond on frequent display during Trump’s first year as president – and that is likely to be especially true for Netanyahu now.

The Israeli prime minister is under legal scrutiny at home for his possible role in several bribery scandals. He denies the allegations and is eager to highlight his politically valuable relationship with Trump, the pro-Israel leader of his country’s most important ally and defender.

Netanyahu is expected to invite Trump to a ribbon-cutting in May for the controversial relocated U.S. embassy in Yerushalayim, U.S. and Israeli officials said, although no visit is on the books.

Hours after Israeli police finished questioning him in one case Friday, Netanyahu released a video on social media saying the investigations will yield nothing and highlighting his “important” visit to Washington and the meeting with “a great friend of Israel, a true friend, President Donald Trump.”

Trump, however, has problems of his own that are thrust into the spotlight by Netanyahu’s visit. Four former Trump associates have been charged or have pleaded guilty in an ongoing special counsel investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. And the president’s son-in-law and chief Mideast adviser, Jared Kushner, is under scrutiny for blurring business and government work and has lost his top-level security clearance.

The Israeli-Palestinian peace proposal that Kushner has worked for more than a year to draft remains on the shelf and is not at the top of the agenda for a meeting arranged alongside Netanyahu’s address to the influential American Israel Public Affairs Committee.

Palestinians have rebuffed U.S. officials and publicly written off Trump as a peacemaker since his December announcement that he would move the embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Trump retaliated with an aid cut and the threat of more.

“The president and the prime minister share a great relationship and make an effort to meet whenever the opportunity arises,” said White House spokesman Joshua Raffel, adding that discussions will include “the Iran nuclear deal, the Syrian civil war, efforts to thwart Iran’s attempt to establish a permanent presence in Syria from which to threaten Israel, and the administration’s ongoing peace efforts.”

Netanyahu chose to address AIPAC in person this year, rather than by remote video link, as a way to underline his pull with the Trump administration and with conservative American Jews, analysts in the United States and Israel said.

Trump is not addressing AIPAC in person. Vice President Mike Pence, U.N. Ambassador Nikiki Haley and U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman will appear on behalf of the administration.

Trump and Netanyahu have met once since the embassy announcement – at the World Economic Forum in Switzerland in January. The embassy move delivered on a Trump campaign promise. It was pushed by Kushner and Friedman, and initially opposed by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis on national security grounds.

Trump also has said Israel will “pay for” the embassy move with reciprocal accommodations to the Palestinians in future negotiations. But as long as those negotiations are an aspiration rejected by the Palestinians, Netanyahu has little worry that Trump will put him on the spot over any difficult concessions, said David Makovsky, a former Obama administration peace negotiator.

Friday’s police interview – less than 24 hours before he left for Washington – was the eighth such session for the long-serving Israeli prime minister. The inquiries relate to corruption scandals that have rocked his leadership and already brought two recommendations for indictments from law enforcement officials.

The scandals have had little impact on the stability of Netanyahu’s government, however, with his coalition partners committed to keeping him.

Shmuel Rosner, a senior fellow at the Jewish People Policy Institute, said Trump is now faced with a dilemma on how to handle Netanyahu.

“He can choose one of the two approaches,” Rosner said. “… He can identify with Netanyahu – both are in a similar situation; they can form a bond of people fighting against unjustified investigation and against an establishment reluctant to see them continue in their jobs, a bond of heads of state under suspicion.”

“The other path is to take the more cautious approach,” in which Trump calculates that it’s better to “put some distance between myself and him,” Rosner said, though he sees no sign of that from Trump so far.

Both U.S. and Israeli officials, who requested anonymity to discuss sensitive legal and diplomatic issues, said Netanyahu poses both risks and political benefits for Trump.

Although the investigations are very different and Trump is not currently a clear target for prosecution, the rough similarities are apparent. Kushner’s compromised position as a negotiator is “hard to ignore,” said one U.S. official.