PM Netanyahu at the White House, Trump Says He May Visit Israel for U.S. Embassy Opening

WASHINGTON/JERUSALEM (Reuters/Washinton Post) -
President Donald Trump meets with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu in the Oval Office of the White House, Monday. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

President Donald Trump said on Monday he might travel to Israel for the opening of the U.S. embassy in Yerushalayim as he and Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu presented a united front against Iran in White House talks.

Trump, with Netanyahu at his side in the Oval Office, said he was considering making what would be his second visit to Jerusalem as president. The opening of the U.S. embassy is planned for May. “We’re looking at coming,” Trump said. “If I can, I will.”

Netanyahu said of Trump’s decision: “This will be remembered by our people through the ages. Others talked about it. You did it.”

The relocated embassy Trump would inaugurate is actually a refitted office that will serve as the vanguard U.S. diplomatic headquarters until a permanent structure is built years from now. Trump boasted Monday that he is building it for a mere $250,000, instead of what he said was a $1 billion government “order.” He appeared to be referring only to the initial office. The permanent structure is estimated to take roughly a decade to be built and could easily cost $1 billion.

Trump said the relationship between the two countries “has never been better” and said he considers Israel “a special place.” Trump noted that other presidents hesitated to move the embassy from Tel Aviv and said that his decision can clear the air for an eventual peace deal.

Trump’s push to change or scrap Iran’s 2015 nuclear deal with world powers and concerns over Tehran’s foothold in Syria topped the agenda of his talks with Netanyahu, U.S. and Israeli officials said.

Both leaders have long railed against the deal, citing its limited duration and the fact it does not cover Iran’s ballistic missile program or its support for anti-Israel terrorists in the region.

“If I had to say what is our greatest challenge in the Middle East to both our countries, to our Arab neighbors, it’s encapsulated in one word: Iran,” Netanyahu said. “Iran must be stopped. That is our common challenge.”

“I have been here for nearly four decades,” Netanyahu said, referring to his long career in Israeli politics. “Talking, seeking to build the American-Israeli alliance.” “The people of Israel see your position on Jerusalem, on Iran, your magnificent defense of Israel and truth at the United Nations,” Netanyahu said.

And as prime minister, he said, he sees something his citizens cannot in the deep and interdependent intelligence and defense networks the two allies have built. Trump nodded repeatedly as Netanyahu spoke. “Thank you for your leadership. And thank for your tremendous friendship,” Netanyahu said as Trump smiled.

Trump has threatened to pull out of the agreement unless European allies help “fix” it with a follow-up accord. An Israeli official said Netanyahu and Trump were likely to talk about how to overcome European resistance on the matter.

Israel has accused Tehran of seeking a permanent military presence in Syria, where Iranian-backed forces support Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in a civil war.

Netanyahu has also cautioned that Israel could act against Iran itself after an Iranian drone flew into Israel last month and an Israeli warplane was shot down while bombing air defenses in Syria. He has accused Iran of planning to build precision-guided missile factories in Lebanon, amid tensions along that border.

Asked Monday about chances for peace, Trump seemed more optimistic than he has in other recent comments. “We’re working on it very hard,” Trump said. “It would be a great achievement – and even from a humanitarian standpoint – what better if we could make peace between Israel and the Palestinians? And I can tell you, we are working very hard on doing that.” He gave no date for when the United States might unveil its proposals.

“The Palestinians, I think, are wanting to come back to the table,” Trump said. “If they don’t, you don’t have peace.”

No major announcements or breakthroughs were expected from Trump’s talks with Netanyahu, whose relationship with the president has been among the closest of any other world leader.

“This is a routine check-in meeting,” one U.S. official said of Netanyahu’s second visit to the Trump White House.

For Netanyahu, however, the Oval Office meeting and address to the pro-Israel lobby group AIPAC on Tuesday offer a respite from his legal troubles.

Netanyahu awaits a decision by Israel’s attorney general on whether to indict him, as police have recommended in two bribery cases. Netanyahu denies any wrongdoing.

In what appeared to be a sign of the political importance of the session to Netanyahu, the White House changed plans Monday morning and announced that reporters and cameras would be allowed into what had been an Oval Office meeting closed to the media.

U.S. officials have said the cases are not expected to affect Netanyahu’s talks, which include meetings with members of Congress.

Updated Monday, March 5, 2018 at 5:41 pm .