Netanyahu heads to White House as legal woes mount

Graft allegations put pressure on Israeli leader but Trump meeting could give him a boost

JERUSALEM • Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will have a brief respite this week from the deluge of legal woes he faces when he heads to Washington to meet US President Donald Trump.

Even as he prepared for his trip, Mr Netanyahu was again questioned by police in Jerusalem on Friday in connection with alleged corruption. Concerns are also mounting over whether he will eventually be forced from office.

Tomorrow's visit to a White House that has shown enthusiastic support for Israel and Mr Netanyahu might bolster the long-serving leader, who has called Mr Trump a "true friend" of his country.

Both men have used populist appeals in the face of investigations, with Mr Netanyahu borrowing Mr Trump's "fake news" label to denounce reports of his alleged corruption.

Israeli police recommended last month that Mr Netanyahu be indicted in two corruption cases and investigations are continuing in others.

Political scientist Gayil Talshir, from Jerusalem's Hebrew University, said: "I think they are partners in ideology, and the ideology is a populist, conservative ideology, which says that the old liberal elites are against us."

Tomorrow's visit to a White House that has shown enthusiastic support for Israel and Mr Netanyahu might bolster the long-serving leader, who has called Mr Trump a "true friend" of his country.

From that perspective, it is a boost for Mr Netanyahu, he added.

However, Mr Trump has given Mr Netanyahu much more than just moral support. The US is set to upturn decades of international consensus when it moves its embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to the disputed city of Jerusalem in May.

Mr Trump has also frozen tens of millions of dollars in aid to the Palestinians, in a bid to force them to the negotiating table. Both moves have left the Palestinian leadership outraged. The Palestinians have accused Mr Trump's administration of blatant bias, and say the US can no longer serve as mediator in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

And with Mr Trump's son-in-law and senior aide Jared Kushner losing his top-level security clearance, there are questions over whether Mr Trump's pledge to reach the "ultimate" peace deal will get off the ground anytime soon.

Mr Kushner has been among those leading the White House's efforts to restart Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

However, Mr Netanyahu might not be troubled by any such delay. He appears more interested in holding talks with Mr Trump on other issues, such as Israel's arch-enemy Iran, and its influence in neighbouring Syria. He will probably seek to further push his case that the Iran nuclear deal between Teheran and world powers should be changed, said former Israeli ambassador to Washington Zalman Shoval.

"Israel, I think, is hoping that there will be a more active American role in trying to block, trying to stem, the Iranian advances in Syria," Mr Shoval said.

The United States remains, by far, Israel's most important ally, providing it with more than US$3 billion (S$4 billion) a year in defence aid and key diplomatic backing.

But poll results released in January by the US-based Pew Research Centre found that 79 per cent of Republicans sympathise more with Israel than the Palestinians, while 27 per cent of Democrats said the same.

The decades-long conflict with the Palestinians is certain to be on the agenda during Mr Netanyahu's visit. But many analysts have trouble seeing how progress can now be made with the Palestinians - not to mention Mr Kushner no longer being able to access America's most closely guarded secrets.

"The Arab-Israeli peace process now is so fraught, so challenged, so burdened with complexity and problems that Jared Kushner could have access to every piece of classified information in the world," said former US Middle East negotiator Aaron David Miller, now with the Wilson Centre think-tank. "It would not help him significantly broker a deal."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on March 04, 2018, with the headline 'Netanyahu heads to White House as legal woes mount'. Print Edition | Subscribe