Trump invites PM to visit early next month; no mention of embassy move

In call with Netanyahu, Trump vows to ‘closely consult’ on tackling Iran threat

White House account of first conversation between two leaders underlines contrast with Obama, references Islamic terror, promises ‘unprecedented commitment’ to Israel’s security

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and then-Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump meeting at Trump Tower in New York, September 25, 2016. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and then-Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump meeting at Trump Tower in New York, September 25, 2016. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)

In his first phone conversation with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday evening, new US President Donald Trump pledged close consultation in “addressing the threats posed by Iran,” unprecedented support for Israel’s security, and a determination to help Israel achieve peace with the Palestinians.

Trump also invited Netanyahu to the White House “in early February.”

The White House account of the call made no mention of plans by Trump to move the US embassy to Jerusalem; shortly earlier, Trump’s spokesman had said the administration was “at the beginning stages of even discussing” the controversial move.

The Trump-Netanyahu conversation marked what some Israeli officials hope will be the start of reset in ties with the US after years of strained relations with the Obama administration. The language used in the White House’s account of the conversation underlined the shift.

The two leaders discussed ways to “advance and strengthen the US-Israel special relationship” and to boost security and stability in the region, the White House said. Trump stressed “the importance the United States places on our close military, intelligence and security cooperation with Israel, which reflects the deep and abiding partnership between our countries.”

The two agreed to “closely consult on a range of regional issues, including addressing the threats posed by Iran,” the White House said. The pledge of close consultation, and the active reference to addressing the Iranian threat, contrasted sharply with President Barack Obama’s friction-filled dealings with Netanyahu on the Iran issue; the nuclear deal the last president negotiated with Iran in 2015 was bitterly attacked by the Israeli prime minister.

Trump also “affirmed his unprecedented commitment to Israel’s security” and stressed that he was making a priority of countering Islamic State and “other radical Islamic terrorist groups” — again, language highlighting the shift from Obama, who steered clear of references to Islamist terror.

Finally, the new president stressed that Israeli-Palestinian peace “can only be negotiated directly between the two parties, and that the United States will work closely with Israel to make progress towards that goal.” Here, too, the language was clearly intended to show a distinction from the previous administration, which on December 23, 2016 abstained in a UN Security Council Resolution that condemned Israeli settlements in the West Bank as illegal and branded East Jerusalem occupied territory. Obama’s failure to veto the resolution was castigated by Netanyahu as a shameful “ambush.”

According to Netanyahu’s office, the conversation with Trump was “very warm,” and the two leaders discussed the Iran deal, the peace process, and “other issues.”

“The prime minister expressed his desire to work closely with President Trump to forge a common vision to advance peace and security in the region, with no daylight between the United States and Israel,” the Israeli statement said.

A final date for Netanyahu’s visit will be set in the coming days, the statement said.

In Washington, Trump told reporters his phone conversation Sunday evening with Netanyahu “was very nice.”

Pressed by reporters after a swearing-in ceremony for his top aides, Trump refused to discuss the contents of the conversation between the two leaders, according to Reuters.

Earlier, Netanyahu told a cabinet meeting there was plenty for the two leaders to discuss.

“There are many issues between us, including the Israeli-Palestinian issue, the situation in Syria and the Iranian threat,” he said.

On Saturday night, Netanyahu released a video addressed to the Iranian people in which he vowed that aggression by Tehran would top his list of priorities during his first contacts with Trump.

“I plan to speak soon with President Trump about how to counter the threat of the Iranian regime, which calls for Israel’s destruction,” Netanyahu said in the video, speaking in English with Persian subtitles.

Netanyahu had also been expected to discuss Trump’s campaign pledge to move the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

Less than an hour before the phone call, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer released a statement that the administration was “at the very beginning stages of even discussing” the embassy move.

Though the statement seemed to counter reports that the controversial move would be announced in the coming days, it was hailed by some in Israel as a sign that the US was on its way to full recognition of Jerusalem as the country’s capital.

Earlier in the day, Netanyahu convinced his cabinet to delay voting on a controversial bill to extend Israeli authority to the settlement of Ma’ale Adumim until after he had met with Trump. Netanyahu told his ministers that he didn’t want to blindside the US administration with any unilateral action.

At the swearing-in ceremony for his top advisers, Trump spoke briefly, but did not mention his conversation with Netanyahu minutes earlier. Instead, he spoke of his conversations with Georgia Governor Nathan Deal, in which he offered his condolences for the casualties of the severe weather there and offered help.

Trump also told those assembled that he would shortly be meeting with UK Prime Minister Theresa May, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, and Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto.

Agencies contributed to this report.

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