Trump-Netanyahu ‘love fest’ expected in Washington

Given Palestinians’ deep distrust of the Trump administration, there is little chance for a breakthrough.
Sunday 04/03/2018
US President Donald Trump (L) and Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu shake hands after Trump delivered a speech at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, last May.     (AFP)
Airtight. US President Donald Trump (L) and Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu shake hands after Trump delivered a speech at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, last May. (AFP)

WASHINGTON - AWhite House meeting between US President Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is expected to be a US-Israeli “love-fest” celebrating the close bond between the two countries and giving a boost to the embattled Israeli leader. However, expectations of any progress to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are low.

Netanyahu, in Washington to attend the annual conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), a pro-Israel lobby group, was to have his fifth meeting with the US president since Trump took office in January 2017. It is the second face-to-face get-together of the two leaders since Trump formally recognised Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in December.

The Israeli prime minister has praised the Trump administration’s decision to move the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem as of May 14, the 70th anniversary of Israel’s independence. Israeli news reports say it is likely that Netanyahu will invite Trump to visit Israel for the occasion. Speaking at a cabinet meeting before travelling to Washington, Netanyahu called Trump “a great friend of the state of Israel.”

The affection is mutual.

“The White House will go out of its way to extend a warm welcome to Netanyahu and roll out the red carpet,” Dan Arbell, a non-resident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Centre for Middle East Policy in Washington, said in an interview. Asked to describe the likely atmosphere of the White House meeting, he said: “’Love fest’ is accurate.”

Arbell said the decision to move the US Embassy to Jerusalem as soon as May had “a lot to do with Israeli politics.” Israeli police have recommended that Netanyahu be charged with bribery, fraud and breach of trust. That is why Trump wanted to show support for the embattled prime minister. Arbell said: “The White House is signalling: Bibi is our man.” “Bibi” is a nickname for Netanyahu.

Domestic US politics is another factor behind the plan to move the embassy this spring. The step offers Trump a chance to satisfy evangelical Christian voters, for whom the Jerusalem question is an important issue, before congressional elections in November. “It helps him with his base,” Arbell said about the president.

Trump, who has been plagued by a special counsel investigation into suspected Russian interference in the 2016 US presidential election and possible links between his campaign and the Russian government, is keen to show his determination to move things forward in the Middle East.

Both Trump and Netanyahu wanted to offer a peace plan “so they can say, ‘Look, if you charge us, you will be throwing away the possibility of peace’,” Hady Amr, a former US State Department official who also works for Brookings, said in e-mailed comments.

However, Trump’s Jerusalem decision has deeply angered the Palestinians, who declared they won’t sit down with the United States for talks. In addition, Trump’s Middle East envoy and son-in law, Jared Kushner, lost his access to highly sensitive documents after his security clearance was downgraded by Trump’s chief of staff, John Kelly. It is unclear how effective Kushner, who has been working on a Middle East peace plan for months, can be in covering the issue from now on.

The outlines of Kushner’s plan to end the long-running Israeli-Palestinian conflict are unknown. Reports say the blueprint stays true to the long sought after two-state solution in that it offers a separate state to the Palestinians to exist side by side with Israel. That state, however, would have limited sovereignty and would remain without East Jerusalem as its capital and without a right of Palestinian refugees to return.

Kushner has been working closely with the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz, who is to visit Washington on March 19.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas called for an international conference to jump-start the Middle East peace process on a multilateral level, to effectively end the United States’ exclusive role as peace broker. Abbas says negotiations could only begin if the United States freezes its Jerusalem decision and if Israel stops Jewish settlement programmes in the West Bank and in East Jerusalem.

Given Palestinians’ deep distrust of the Trump administration, there is little chance for a breakthrough. “Even if there is a plan, it’s dead on arrival,” Arbell said.

Amr said: “It is highly unlikely that Trump would offer a proposal that even partially meets minimalist Palestinian needs, so any proposed plan is even less likely to succeed than the past.”

Trump and Netanyahu are expected to talk about the situation in Syria, where risks of a direct confrontation between Israel and Iran have been rising, and about the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran, which has been rejected by both leaders. Trump says he will reimpose US sanctions on Iran by May if “serious flaws” of the accord have not been addressed.

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