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Study in contrasts: Trump meets with British leader May, then Israel's Netanyahu

Study in contrasts: Trump meets with British leader May, then Israel's Netanyahu
President Trump shakes hands with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a meeting at the World Economic Forum on Thursday in Davos, Switzerland. (Associated Press)

President Trump met separately with the leaders of two of America’s closest allies on Thursday, and their public appearances confirmed that the closer of the two is Israel, even as Trump insisted that reported tensions with Britain are a “false rumor.”

Both prime ministers — Britain’s Theresa May and Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu — received grins, handshakes and warm words as they met with the president on the sidelines of a global forum in Switzerland. But Trump’s smiles were cheerier, his touch and words warmer with Netanyahu, and the public portion of their session more than twice as long.

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The so-called special relationship between the United States and Britain has chilled under Trump as he’s repeatedly offended the British — earlier this month he canceled a trip to London in February -- while the president has given Israel much to celebrate. In his meeting with Netanyahu, Trump again leaned harder onto Israel’s side in its longstanding conflict with the Palestinians, in contrast with past presidents who sought to be neutral brokers for peace.

Trump threatened to cut U.S. aid to the Palestinian Authority completely, saying Palestinian leaders “disrespected us” when they refused to meet with Vice President Mike Pence, who traveled to the region over the weekend. Palestinian AuthorityPresident Mahmoud Abbas snubbed Pence to protest Trump’s decision in December recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital despite Palestinians’ own claim to the city.

The meetings with Netanyahu and May were the centerpiece of Trump’s first day at the World Economic Forum, an annual gathering of global leaders and titans of business in a ski resort town in the Swiss Alps. He was scheduled to dine with European business executives Thursday night and on Friday deliver a keynote address, which was much anticipated given the dissonance between Trump’s “America First” talk and the globalist consensus among those at Davos.

Trump, who already slashed one tranche of humanitarian aid to the Palestinians last week by more than half, $65 million of a total $125 million, threatened to cut them off completely if they don’t show more respect. He said previous presidents had failed to use aid money as leverage. The aid normally goes to the United Nations agency that provides healthcare and schools to Palestinian refugees.

“We give them hundreds of millions of dollars in aid and support — tremendous numbers, numbers that nobody understands,” Trump said, as Netanyahu and top aides, including Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, looked on. “That money is on the table, and that money is not going to them unless they sit down and negotiate peace.”

Trump then seemed to threaten a complete break with the Palestinians. “I can tell you that Israel does want to make peace,” he said, adding that the Palestinians are “going to have to want to make peace too, or we’re going to have nothing to do with it any longer.”

In apparent coordination, his unusually tough rhetoric was echoed later by Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., in a speech to the Security Council excoriating the Palestinian leadership, especially Abbas.

Abbas responded through a spokesman, saying Jerusalem was “not for sale.”

Netanyahu called Trump’s decision to move the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv “a historic decision that will be forever etched in the hearts of our people for generations to come.”

The Israeli leader only broke his smile to show discomfort when Trump promised on Israel’s behalf that it would later make concessions to the Palestinians in exchange for the United States’ recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

Allies in the region and other parts of the world have criticized Trump’s Jerusalem decision as a setback in the peace process. For decades, the status of Jerusalem was considered an issue to be left for a final peace settlement, given both sides’ claims to the city. Pence, in his recent visit to Egypt, Jordan and Israel, was greeted by protests and angry words from the leaders of the two Arab countries.

Trump argued, as he has before, that rather than hinder peace talks he had removed a key obstacle from Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.

“We took it off the table,” Trump said. Gesturing toward Netanyahu, he added, “You won one point, and you’ll give up some points later on in the negotiation, if it ever takes place. I don’t know that it ever will take place.”

Netanyahu, offering heaps of praise for Trump, also pledged to support the administration if the president makes good on a campaign threat to “rip up” the landmark Iranian nuclear deal that the Obama administration and major allies brokered, over Israel’s opposition.

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“You've said it's a disastrous deal,” Netanyahu told Trump. “You've said that if its fatal flaws are not fixed, that you should walk away from it. And I want you to know that if you decide to do that, then we will back you all the way.”

The 2015 agreement was negotiated by the U.S., the four other permanent members of the U.N. Security Council and Germany, with Iran. Tehran was required to dismantle or destroy most of its nuclear infrastructure in exchange for easing of most international economic sanctions. The U.N. atomic energy watchdog agency has repeatedly found that Iran is complying.

But Trump has said Iran should also be forced to go beyond its nuclear-related obligations and end its support for regional military groups and development of ballistic missiles. He has said that if European allies don’t join in enforcing such action, he will withdraw from the deal in May, the next scheduled review.

The Netanyahu meeting came directly after Trump spoke with May, and both insisted that nothing was amiss in the “special relationship” between Britain and the U.S. It was their first meeting since Trump canceled the trip to London amid expectations of mass protests against him.

Trump’s first year as president was marked by repeated diplomatic incidents involving Britain and May, and testy exchanges from afar. Yet the president said he and May get along well and that their two countries are “joined at the hip when it comes to the military.”

“We’re on the same wavelength, I think, in every respect,” Trump said, looking toward May. “There's nothing that would happen to you that we won't be there to fight for you,” he added.

May had publicly rebuked Trump in November after the president shared anti-Muslim videos from the far-right group Britain First, and she also did so months earlier when Trump made comments critical of Britain after a terrorist attack in London. In each case Trump wrote snarky tweets directed at May.

Earlier this month, a spokesman for May said she disagreed with Trump’s use of the word “shithole” to describe African countries during a closed-door immigration meeting with U.S. lawmakers.

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May’s comments Thursday were more perfunctory, intended to smooth the rift with the U.S. without appearing too close to Trump, who is widely unpopular in Britain.

“We continue to have that really special relationship between the U.K. and the United States, standing shoulder-to-shoulder because we're facing the same challenges across the world,” she said.

When asked about a state visit for Trump in London, May said it’s being discussed. The White House’s summary of their private session said they discussed “a working visit” by Trump — a step down from a formal state visit -- “in the coming months.”

Britain’s invitation for a state visit was extended to Trump about a year ago but seemed all but forgotten amid the subsequent tensions; some in Parliament called for rescinding the invitation, as did 1.8 million Britons who signed a petition.

Trump’s decision to come to Davos was something of a surprise, given that U.S. presidents typically avoid the bastion of rich and powerful elites and Trump, in particular, was elected as an anti-globablist, anti-trade populist. On arriving, he was asked if he was being well received.

The president, surrounded by attendees straining to see him, replied, “I already am. Look, you take a look. You tell me.”

Times writers Brian Bennett and Tracy Wilkinson contributed from Washington.

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