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How will Netanyahu’s legal woes affect U.S.-Israeli relations and peace efforts?

How will Netanyahu’s legal woes affect U.S.-Israeli relations and peace efforts?
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gives a statement to reporters Feb. 28 on the attorney general's decision to indict him on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust, pending a hearing. (Lior Mizrahi / Getty Images)

Even as likely indictments hang over Benjamin Netanyahu and imperil his political career, the embattled Israeli prime minister is receiving the enthusiastic endorsement of his good buddy and leader of the free world, Donald J. Trump.

“He has been a great prime minister,” President Trump said in Hanoi on Thursday after a nuclear summit with North Korea as plans to charge Netanyahu in three felony corruption cases were about to be announced in Jerusalem. “He's done a great job as prime minister. He's tough, he's smart, he's strong.”

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Since becoming president more than two years ago, Trump has been a loyal, unquestioning ally of Netanyahu and his right-wing Israeli government. He has taken numerous steps in favor of Israel and promised to look out for Netanyahu’s interests as his son-in-law and other administration officials seek a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians.

Trump has called that long-elusive goal the “ultimate deal.” But Netanyahu’s political and legal predicament has added even more complexity to what was already a tortured, long-shot process.

Netanyahu, who has dominated Israeli politics for more than a decade, also faces a tough reelection bid. He is running for a fourth consecutive term as head of the government in voting that takes place in 40 days, on April 9.

The fate of Netanyahu and the still-secret U.S.-crafted peace plan are in many ways intertwined. How he fares in the final weeks of the election campaign, whether his party continues to hold on to its lead or slips substantially, is likely to influence whether he welcomes a peace plan or turns his back on any such effort to appeal to his hard-line, ultra-hawkish base, Israeli and American political analysts say.

Trump handed the project of writing a peace plan to son-in-law Jared Kushner and Jason Greenblatt, a former Trump Organization attorney named special envoy for the Middle East. The two this week ended a second tour through Persian Gulf states attempting to find support for their ideas, which some leaders in the region have rejected for appearing overly pro-Israeli, disregarding Palestinian demands.

Kushner said he would not make the plan public before the Israeli election. It could, however, be published in the postelection period, a frenzied time when, in Israel’s parliamentary system, political parties who have won seats make alliances in an attempt to form a government that selects the prime minister.

At that point, analysts said, Netanyahu could appeal to a broader group of politicians, insisting he was the best leader to make peace while not sacrificing Israel’s security or other interests.

“There is a devil’s theory that Kushner and company will try to do a rollout to help Bibi form a coalition,” said Daniel Kurtzer, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel who teaches Middle East policy at Princeton University, referring to Netanyahu by his nickname.

Or, if it would help Netanyahu more, Kushner “is likely to tiptoe back to Washington so he does not hurt Bibi,” Kurtzer said.

If Netanyahu loses in the election, there may be pressure for the Trump administration to delay releasing the peace plan to another date, if ever, because of the uncertainty and especially if a center-left government takes over, said Ilan Goldenberg, a Middle East expert at the Center for a New American Security, a Washington think tank.

Yet if Netanyahu thinks his career depends on it, he could probably go harder right, Goldenberg and others said, which might render any peace plan dead on arrival because few governments and especially those in the Arab world would be willing to work with such a coalition.

Already, Netanyahu stunned many people in the U.S. and in Israel when he brought three extreme right-wing fringe parties into his coalition last week. One of the parties, Jewish Power, believes in Jewish supremacy and is led by disciples of Meir Kahane, the ultra-right-wing American-born rabbi who won a seat in the Israeli parliament, or Knesset, before he was banned from politics in 1988 for advancing a racist agenda. He was assassinated two years later.

No criticism was forthcoming, however, from the Trump administration. Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo said that “we’re not about to get involved” in a democratic country’s election. Those statements came four days before Trump’s endorsement of the “tough, smart, strong” Netanyahu.

Prior to being formally indicted, Netanyahu is allowed to challenge the charges against him, which involve bribery and other corruption aimed at promoting his image and helping him hold on to power. If indicted, Netanyahu could continue to campaign, but whether he could serve effectively as prime minister remains unclear.

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Initial polling after Atty. Gen. Avichai Mandelblit announced his intention to indict Thursday was grim for Netanyahu and his Likud Party.

A front-page poll in Israel Hayom, a daily established by Netanyahu ally and casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, showed the centrist Blue and White party leading with 38 to 29 projected seats out of a total of 120 in the Knesset.

“Netanyahu is a man of paradoxes,” said Ben-Dror Yemini, a political analyst for Israel’s largest daily, Yediot Aharonot.

Netanyahu the statesman, Yemini said, “has done well by Israel,” championing the country economically and diplomatically. But Netanyahu the politician, he said, “is a very dangerous man,” who places his political standing above the state — to “great harm.” He listed as examples both Netanyahu’s legal imbroglios and the growing schism between Israel and American Jewry over the Likud-led government’s turn further to the right.

So far, Netanyahu — borrowing another page from the Trump manual — has declared his innocence by blaming efforts to prosecute him on a left-wing “witch hunt” that is determined to remove him from power.

In an attempt to shore up his rattled party, Netanyahu spent three hours with Likud ministers and legislators on Friday, planning election strategy in the new political and legal panorama.

“It looks bad for the Likud,” Kan news analyst Moav Vardi acknowledged, “but it’s also excellent for Netanyahu, who is now perfectly placed to embark on a campaign of ‘woe is me,’ arguing that he needs all right-wingers to rally to his side so as to ‘stop the left.’”

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Goldenberg added that all politicking and coalition-building in the weeks to come for Netanyahu will be about “what will protect me legally as much as possible.”

That also has echoes of Trumpian strategic spiel.

Throughout the campaign, Netanyahu used his embrace of Trump, and Trump’s of him, as electoral advertising.

That is not about to stop, indictment or no. He comes to Washington at the end of March, just days ahead of the election, to speak at the annual convention of the pro-Israeli lobbying organization the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). Israeli officials say Netanyahu is also expected to call on Trump at the White House, a photo op that in Israel is worth a thousand election-time words.

Times staff writer Wilkinson reported from Washington and special correspondent Tarnopolsky from Jerusalem.

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