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Netanyahu may seek to reset U.S.-Israel relations in meeting with Trump

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrives in Washington on Tuesday hoping to find in President Trump a kindred spirit and compliant ally after eight years of personal friction with President Obama.

The reality may be more complicated.

As a candidate, Trump signaled he would show staunch support for Netanyahu and his allies in Israel in crucial ways, including backing Israel’s growing settlements in the West Bank, moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, and tearing up the Iran nuclear deal.

He also hinted he might reverse decades of U.S. policy by abandoning the search for a so-called two-state solution that envisions an Israeli nation and a Palestinian nation living side by side in peace.

But after three rocky weeks in office, Trump has backed down on a raft of foreign policy issues — reaffirming the “one China” policy with Beijing and vowing “strong support” for the NATO military alliance in Europe — and he now appears to be reevaluating his Israel policy as well.

Trump has publicly tapped the brakes on his support for expanding Jewish settlements on disputed land in the Palestinian West Bank, for example.

On Friday, Trump told an Israeli newspaper that “going forward with settlements” is not a “good thing for peace,” a position that puts him far closer to traditional U.S. policy, and to Obama, than before.

Settlements “don't help the [peace] process. I can say that,’’ Trump told Israel Today, which supports Netanyahu and is owned by American casino magnate and right-wing activist Sheldon Adelson. “There is [only] so much land left. And every time you take land for settlements, there is less land left.”

That appears to put him at odds with Netanyahu, whose government has approved 6,000 new homes in existing settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem since Trump’s inauguration.

It also may put Trump in conflict with his proposed pick for U.S. ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, a fierce advocate and financial backer of the settlements.

The first signs of change at the White House came last week, following a three-day visit to Washington by King Abdullah of Jordan, a strategic ally that neighbors Israel and that works closely with Washington against Islamic State, Al Qaeda and other militants.

Abdullah was the first Arab leader to meet with Trump, Vice President Pence and others in the new administration. He argued that moving the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem — the disputed city that both Israelis and Palestinians claim as their capital — would be so provocative as to threaten his own government.

Jordan’s Hashemite Kingdom is held as the protector of some of Islam’s most important holy sites, including the Al Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem, giving it special authority in the Muslim world. It also is regarded as custodian of Holy Land Christian sites such as the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, which honors the site of Christ’s burial.

Another shift came after Rex Tillerson was sworn in as secretary of State on Feb. 1 and met with senior diplomats about policies in the Middle East.

The next day, after Tillerson telephoned Netanyahu, the White House issued a statement that warned it would not support further expansion of settlements.

While the Trump administration did not consider settlements an obstacle to peace, it said, “The construction of new settlements or the expansion of existing settlements beyond their current borders may not be helpful in achieving that goal.”

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The White House did not deny a Jerusalem Post report the same day that said administration officials had confirmed for the first time that Trump is committed to a comprehensive two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict negotiated between the parties. 

Officials said Trump would discuss the issue with Netanyahu when he visits the White House on Wednesday.

Netanyahu had famously frosty relations with Obama, and he welcomed Trump’s election as a chance to find a more supportive partner in the White House.

“I imagine Netanyahu is looking to reset the U.S. Israeli relationship,” said Susie Gelman, chair of the Israel Policy Forum, an advocacy group that focuses on peace between Israel and the Palestinians.

Netanyahu believes he can strike common cause with Trump, according to diplomats and analysts, by enlisting Sunni-dominated Arab nations in a coalition against Iran and radical Islam, especially Islamic State.

But to keep Arab allies on board, Israel may need to make concessions to the Palestinians on settlements and other issues, several analysts said. They suggested Trump use his dealmaking skills when he sits down with Netanyahu, who is widely known by his nickname, Bibi.

“Trump should say, ‘Bibi, what do you want? A one-state solution? Then what do you do with six million Arabs?,’” said Amnon Reshef, a retired Israeli army general who now heads a coalition of former security officials seeking peace with the Palestinians.

“‘Or do you want a two-state solution, and I will bring all the Arab states on board? Let’s make a deal!’” he added.

Ilan Goldenberg, a Middle East expert who served in the State and Defense departments in the Obama administration, said Netanyahu is unlikely to try to mollify Arab countries. “I don’t see it happening with this Israeli government,” he said.

Netanyahu may be more interested in talking about Iran than Palestinian peace and moving the U.S. embassy.

Many in Israel’s security establishment have begrudgingly acknowledged that the internationally brokered 2015 Iran nuclear deal, which Netanyahu fiercely opposed, has successfully blocked Tehran’s ability to build a nuclear bomb.

But Israel wants Washington to do more to punish Iran for supporting Shiite Muslim militants in Lebanon and elsewhere, testing ballistic missiles and other activities that have kept the region on edge.

“Netanyahu is going with ideas” on Iran, said Michael Oren, Israel’s deputy minister for diplomacy and a former ambassador to the United States. “The thrust would be to connect the nuclear deal with Iran’s other bad behavior.”

As negotiated by Iran and six world powers, the landmark arms control deal deliberately focused only on easing the threat of nuclear war, not on lesser dangers. It lifted international sanctions in exchange for Iran freezing its nuclear development program and destroying most of its nuclear infrastructure.

After the accord was signed, the Obama administration stiffened sanctions on Iran for its support of terrorist groups and its continued development of ballistic missiles. It also signed a 10-year defense deal that provides Israel a record $38 billion in security aid.

The Trump administration added new sanctions this month after an Iranian missile test, but publicly acknowledged it was not trying to undermine the nuclear deal. 

 

tracy.wilkinson@latimes.com

For more on international affairs, follow @TracyKWilkinson on Twitter

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