World & Nation

Netanyahu begins visit to U.S., putting aside personal and political troubles at home

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the weekly Cabinet meeting at his Jerusalem office in a picture dated Feb. 25, 2018.
(Gali Tibbon / AFP/Getty Images)

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife, Sara, landed in Washington on Sunday in the midst of a convergence of crises at home with little precedence.

Netanyahu’s government is teetering on the verge of collapse over the latest threat presented by an ultra-Orthodox party to his coalition government — a proposed law granting draft exemptions to young religious men.

“Do you think a solution will be found to save your government by the time you return?” one Israeli journalist asked Netanyahu as he prepared to embark for Washington early on Sunday.

Netanyahu’s hold on power is similarly threatened from another direction: the police.


His last working day in Jerusalem was spent responding to Israeli police interrogators who declared that both Benjamin and Sara Netanyahu are criminal suspects in an investigation of regulatory benefits in exchange for positive coverage in a news outlet owned by an Israeli telecom giant.

It was Netanyahu’s eighth interrogation, and it followed a Feb. 13 police recommendation that Netanyahu be indicted in two unrelated cases of graft.

In Washington, further strife could await him.

On Monday, Netanyahu is scheduled to meet with President Trump. The focus of their meeting is expected to be a troublesome issue dividing the closely allied leaders: Iran.


Anticipating the summit, Netanyahu said: “We will discuss Iranian aggression in our region in general, and especially with regard to the Iranian nuclear program.” But the real strain involves Iran’s expanding, conventional military presence in Syria, Israel’s neighbor to the north.

Tensions between Israel and Iran, longtime regional enemies, flared last month when Iran launched a drone into Israeli airspace from one of its Syrian bases. Israel intercepted the drone and Netanyahu brandished a large piece of debris from it at last month’s Munich Security Conference, where he warned Iran not to “test” Israel.

The Israeli government has come to the conclusion that the United States is willing to allow Iran’s continued presence in Syria so long as Islamic State fighters are defeated in the civil war.

Another potential subject of discussion is mired in mystery. It is unclear whether anyone in Washington, Jerusalem or in Ramallah, the seat of the Palestinian government, knows where Trump’s touted plan to revive Israeli-Palestinian peace talks stands.

No Israeli or Palestinian officials are known to have seen any drafts.

Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and senior advisor, who has been responsible for advancing the initiative, and who was stripped of his security clearance last week, will attend the Monday summit in a diminished capacity. Josh Raffel, a White House spokesman who has been deeply enmeshed in contacts with Israel, announced his resignation last week.

Israeli officials have expressed bafflement about the plan’s possible impact on Israel’s already febrile political panorama.

On Monday, Netanyahu is also scheduled to address the American Israel Public Affairs Committee at its annual convention.


This encounter with a usually friendly arm of American Jewish leadership comes as Netanyahu’s relations with some American Jews are at a nadir, following his abandonment of a 2016 deal that would have allowed the liberal streams of Judaism that represent the majority of American Jews an equal place to pray at the Western Wall, widely regarded as Jerusalem’s holiest site for Jews.

Daniel Shapiro, the former U.S. ambassador to Israel, wrote in a Sunday op-ed piece in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz: “Not since the Nov. 1, 1973, meeting between Prime Minister Golda Meir, under fire for the failures that led to the Yom Kippur War, and President Richard Nixon, already deep into the Watergate scandal, have American and Israeli leaders met at a time of such internal political turmoil in both countries.”


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Tarnopolsky is a special correspondent.

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