From interrogation room to echo chamber: Netanyahu looks for love in the US

From interrogation room to echo chamber: Netanyahu looks for love in the US

Days after his latest police grilling, PM tries to leave his legal woes behind him and revel in the friendly embrace of Trump and adoration of most in the pro-Israel lobby

Raoul Wootliff

Raoul Wootliff covers politics, corruption and crime for The Times of Israel.

Illustrative: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu waves to the cheering audience as he arrives to speak to the AIPAC meeting at the Washington Convention Center, March 4, 2014, in Washington. (AP/Carolyn Kaster)
Illustrative: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu waves to the cheering audience as he arrives to speak to the AIPAC meeting at the Washington Convention Center, March 4, 2014, in Washington. (AP/Carolyn Kaster)

Last Thursday, a rumor spread that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was set to make a dramatic announcement at a speech that evening to the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations, maybe even calling early elections.

Exactly a week earlier, police had recommended he be indicted for bribery in two corruption cases, and, in the intervening days, the allegations against him in another probe had grown significantly stronger. The address to US Jewish leaders would be his first opportunity to address the Israeli public in the wake of the new accusations. Expecting a fiery response, if not an election announcement, more than 70 journalists arrived at the Inbal Hotel in Jerusalem as Netanyahu came to address the modest gathering of American lay leaders.

But Netanyahu disappointed the Israeli media, in a speech lasting close to an hour, by giving his US crowd exactly what they had hoped for. No talk of elections. Not one mention of the indictment recommendations. Nada on the new allegations. Not even an angry word against police or the media, whom he had previously accused of propagating “slanderous and false claims” and leading a “witch hunt against” him.

Prime Minster Benjamin Netanyahu addressing the the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations annual mission in Jerusalem, on February 21, 2018. (Avi Hayoun/Conference of Presidents)

Instead, the prime minister escaped the gruel of his legal woes for a few minutes, and focused on his much-preferred bread and butter: the threat of Iran, and Israel’s growing global standing, particularly in light of his own blossoming relationship with US President Donald Trump. And the audience loved every minute, bookending the speech with lengthy standing ovations.

Asked after the speech where the rumors of an election announcement may have come from, the prime minister’s English language spokesman, David Keyes, told The Times of Israel, “I have no idea. We’ve been focusing on AIPAC” — the upcoming annual policy conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.

On Friday, Netanyahu and his wife, Sara, were questioned under caution as suspects, according to Hebrew media reports, in the Bezeq corruption probe, known as Case 4000.

And this week, Netanyahu has once again escaped the blistering heat from the corruption cases he is facing in Israel to bask in the more pleasant warmth of the current Israel-US relationship, meeting with Trump at the White House, and addressing the US pro-Israel community via AIPAC.

Even as those unfounded rumors of early elections have dissipated (only to be replaced by a crisis for Netanyahu’s coalition that could see Israelis at the polls within a few months), the prime minister will use his time in the US to project the image of a responsible, capable and stable leader, with nary a threat to his authority.

Dividing the spoils of Jerusalem

In a statement on Saturday evening, made hours before he boarded the plane for the US, Netanyahu revealed his ideal agenda for Monday’s meeting with Trump, both in their public comments and in their closed-door parlay.

First, said Netanyahu, “in my conversation with the president, I will thank him on behalf of the people of Israel for moving the US embassy to Jerusalem to mark the State of Israel’s 70th Independence Day.”

The new US Embassy in Jerusalem will open in May 2018, to coincide with the 70th anniversary of Israel declaring independence, the Trump administration confirmed last month.

View of the US Consulate in Jerusalem’s Arnona neighborhood, Israel, February 24, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

This will no doubt be the first item the leaders discuss.

For Trump, it is a chance to prove to his electorate that he is fulfilling a key campaign promise, particularly after a week in which he did the opposite, by blindsiding Republicans when he advocated raising age limits for gun ownership, tightening background checks, and seizing some weapons without due process.

For Netanyahu it is a chance to show that his strategy — showering Trump with copious platitudes and nearly avoiding any public disagreement with the US administration — has paid off.  Embracing the president in the Oval Office and once again calling him a “true friend” of Israel, the prime minister will hope to claim responsibility for Trump’s December 6 announcement recognizing Israel’s capital and setting in motion plans to move the US embassy there.

A joint front against Iran

After praising the Jerusalem move, Netanyahu said in his Saturday statement, he will “speak with the president about Iran, especially ahead of the decision regarding the nuclear program. We will talk about Iran’s aggression in our region, and specifically regarding its nuclear program.”

Trump has expressed concern that parts of the Iran nuclear deal begin expiring in 2026 and that it fails to address Iran’s missile program, its regional activities, or its human rights abuses. He has laid out conditions to “fix” the deal that must be met to prevent him from abrogating it, including increased inspections, ensuring that “Iran never even comes close to possessing a nuclear weapon,” and that the deal have no expiration date.

In January, Trump signed a waiver that kept the deal alive, but vowed it would be the last time he did so, unless other countries agreed to work to strengthen it. He must sign another waiver by May 12.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu waves part of an Iranian drone downed in Israeli airspace, during a speech on the third day of the 54th Munich Security Conference (MSC) held at the Bayerischer Hof hotel, in Munich, southern Germany, on February 18, 2018. (Screen capture)

Last month, Netanyahu told reporters that his speech on Iranian aggression to the Munich Security Conference, in which he displayed the wing flap of an Iranian drone recently shot down in Israeli airspace, “was meant to address the current aggressiveness of Iran on the ground and to influence what will happen in Washington in a few months.”

His central argument is that if the US were to restore some sanctions against Iran, countries throughout the world would be forced to choose between access to the Iranian economy, with its GDP of approximately $500 billion, and the American economy, whose GDP is nearly $20 trillion.

Quashing Iran has been the undisputed focus of Netanyahu’s global diplomatic drive for the entirety of the nine years he has served as prime minister, and going back even further. He has been a constant strident critic of the 2015 Iran deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, and his disagreements with the Obama administration over it were public, forceful, and bitter.

Trump’s similar hostility toward Iran and the nuclear deal (and, indeed, perhaps most importantly, toward Obama) has given Netanyahu a powerful ally in his continued campaign to curb the Islamic Republic’s aggression and military ambition. He no doubt hopes that Monday’s meeting will project a new joint Israeli-US front against it.

‘Historic’ peace

In a final, stubby line on his Saturday statement on the planned meeting with Trump, Netanyahu added tepidly, “I will talk with the president about advancing peace.”

That lack of enthusiastic prominence, compared to his comments on Jerusalem and Iran, was telling, indicative of a concern that his lovefest with Trump could be damaged by the administration’s so-far-unrevealed peace plan, but also of his skepticism that anything will come of it.

The only hiccup in the year of Trump-Netanyahu relations came when the White House issued a stark denial after the prime minister claimed last month that he had presented the Trump administration with specific proposals to annex parts of the West Bank, and possibly received tacit approval.

Netanyahu had announced at a Likud faction meeting that he had been in talks with the White House on a “historic” initiative to annex Israeli settlement areas in the West Bank, but in a rare, on-record response to comments by the Israeli prime minister, a White House spokesman flatly denied the claim.

US backing for such a move would be a major shift in policy for the Americans, who have long considered the settlements an impediment to peace, while most of the international community considers them illegal.

US President Donald Trump (right) speaks with Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a bilateral meeting on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum (WEF) annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland, on January 25, 2018. (AFP PHOTO / Nicholas Kamm)

It would also have upended any remaining hopes for the success of Trump’s planned “ultimate deal” between Israel and the Palestinians.

Trump’s point man for mediation, his son-in-law Jared Kushner, together with a small team, has spent the past year preparing a much-awaited blueprint for peace.

But Kushner is in the midst of a punishing political firestorm, his plan remains a mystery, and the Palestinians are not even speaking to the White House.

If Trump goes off script and talks up the plan as a path toward Palestinian statehood, he could certainly drizzle, at the very least, on Netanyahu’s parade. But it is perhaps even more likely that the president will anger the Palestinians, and the prime minister knows it.

In their last meeting, at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Trump, in unscripted remarks, said the US would no longer transfer monetary aid to the Palestinians unless they entered peace negotiations with Israel, and excoriated the Palestinian leadership’s reaction to his decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

“That money is not going to them unless they sit down and negotiate peace, because I can tell you that Israel does want to make peace, and they’re going to have to want to make peace, too, or we’re going to have nothing to do with it any longer,” Trump said next to an apparently surprised, smiling, Netanyahu.

Setting the tone for AIPAC

After his meeting with Trump, Netanyahu will have nearly a full day, with no currently scheduled events, to finalize his AIPAC speech, turning the public show with the president into talking points for the 18,000-strong crowd.

His first speech there in three years — in 2016 and 2017 he addressed the conference via video link from Israel — he will likely be received as a rock star.

Netanyahu will no doubt receive numerous standing ovations, just as he did from the Conference of Presidents.

And, at least while he is speaking, the cheers of the adulating crowd will be loud enough to drown out the wail of police sirens back home.

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