Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, under siege from corruption investigations and other scandals back home, found a warm respite Monday at the White House at the start of a three-day U.S. visit expected to center on Iran, not the stalled Mideast peace process.
Even as a criminal investigation into Netanyahu deepened in Israel, the prime minister and President Trump shook hands twice, smiled broadly for the cameras and lavished each other with praise in the Oval Office before they sat down to lunch with their wives and Cabinet members.
Trump and Netanyahu have bonded especially closely, in part over their ego-driven style, but also over the threat from Iran and their shared disdain of President Obama. Their meetings offer a sharp contrast to Netanyahu’s visits with Obama, when they both often sat stiff and unsmiling.
In brief comments to reporters, both leaders said U.S.-Israeli relations are stronger than ever. “We are very close on trade deals; we are very, very close on military and terrorism and all of the things that we have to work together on,” Trump said. “The relationship has never been better.”
Netanyahu offered an enthusiastic endorsement of Trump’s decision in December to recognize the divided city of Jerusalem as capital of Israel, which previous administrations had refused to do in hopes of furthering peace negotiations.
Netanyahu compared Trump to Cyrus the Great, an ancient Persian king who conquered a vast empire and allowed the exiled Jews in Babylonia to return to their ancestral home to rebuild their temple.
“The Jewish people have a long memory,” Netanyahu said. Trump's decision, he said, will be “remembered by our people through the ages.”
Trump said he is proud of recognizing Jerusalem, which he said other presidents had promised but never fulfilled. Critics say the decision upended hopes for a negotiated solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that included an independent state for the Palestinians, who view East Jerusalem as their capital.
Trump said he may travel to Jerusalem later this year when the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv is symbolically transferred to Jerusalem. Initially, the embassy will work out of offices within the U.S. Consulate in Jerusalem with a skeleton staff.
Trump seemed confused on this point, saying an embassy could be constructed “quickly” for about $250,000. Building a complete new embassy that meets security requirements would be expected to cost at least tens of millions of dollars.
Both Trump and Netanyahu are widely unpopular at home, and both could get a political boost from this visit, at least with their political bases.
“They’re both expert at building public support by demonizing their foreign enemies, and they have nothing but disdain for what they see as a liberal press corps that is constantly attacking them unfairly,” said Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank.
But he said Netanyahu has the most to gain.
“The walls are closing in around Netanyahu, as a set of corruption scandals threaten to end his political career,” he said. “He will trumpet apparent success rebuilding Israeli ties with the White House, and his cost-free victory of moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, as an indicator that he is Israel’s indispensable leader.”
He added that Israeli courts may not agree, noting that a previous prime minister and president each served jail time for actions while in office. “This trip may go down as Benjamin Netanyahu’s last hurrah, and I expect him to make the most of it,” he said.
In his Oval Office comments, Netanyahu described Iran as the “greatest challenge” to Israel, the United States and its Arab allies, and warned it is “practicing aggression everywhere.”
He said Tehran had emerged from the landmark 2015 nuclear accord “emboldened and enriched.” Most world powers, as well as the United Nations nuclear watchdog agency, say the deal has successfully blocked Iran from obtaining, developing or building nuclear weapons.
Trump has threatened to walk away from the disarmament accord and may do so as soon as May, when a deadline for certification of Iran’s compliance to Congress comes due.
The two leaders gave short shrift to what is normally the principal issue between Israel and Washington: negotiations to establish peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians.
Trump said he believed his recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital will promote the cause of peace, an opinion that few diplomats and foreign leaders share. Palestinian leaders have largely withdrawn from dealings with Trump administration officials, saying they no longer view the U.S. as an honest broker.
“The Palestinians, I think, are wanting to come back to the table,” Trump said. “If they don’t, you don’t have peace. You don’t have peace… and that’s a possibility also. I’m not saying it’s going to happen.”
Shortly after taking office last year, Trump put Jared Kushner, his son-in-law and advisor, in charge of reviving the Mideast peace process. But that goal seems increasingly remote.
Kushner recently saw his security clearance downgraded at the White House, barring him from access to top secret information, and he is said to be under scrutiny for possible conflicts of interest in his dealings with foreign governments.
White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters later Monday that Kushner’s role in the meeting between Netanyahu and Trump "wasn't impacted" by his lower security clearance.
In Israel, Netanyahu's former communications chief, Nir Hefetz, reportedly struck a deal with Israeli authorities to provide evidence against the prime minister in exchange for avoiding jail time. He has supplied to police tape recordings that allegedly incriminate Netanyahu, most Israeli media reported.
Netanyahu said in a statement issued in Washington that Hefetz’s claims are “entirely baseless.”
The prime minister is embroiled in numerous scandals, including the alleged taking of bribes and conspiracy to manipulate news coverage. In Israel, the Hefetz bombshell was getting at least as much coverage as Netanyahu's meeting with Trump.
Special correspondent Noga Tarnopolsky contributed from Jerusalem.