As legal troubles swirl, Netanyahu heads to Washington for Trump meeting, AIPAC
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As legal troubles swirl, Netanyahu heads to Washington for Trump meeting, AIPAC

PM says he'll thank US president for imminent embassy move to Jerusalem, invite him to attend opening, address Iran nuke deal and regional aggression, and talk peace plan

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Saturday night departed on a week-long trip to the United States, where he will speak before the annual convention at AIPAC and meet with US President Donald Trump at the White House, escaping — if momentarily — mounting legal troubles at home.

In a statement on Saturday evening, Netanyahu said that in his upcoming meeting with Trump, he will thank the president “on behalf of the people of Israel, for moving the US embassy to Jerusalem to mark the state of Israel’s 70th Independence Day,” and will “first and foremost” speak with him on Iran, the 2015 nuclear deal, which Netanyahu has vehemently opposed, Iran’s “aggression in our region,” and “advancing peace” between Israelis and Palestinians.

“Advancing these issues is important to Israel and important to the security of the entire world,” said Netanyahu, in a statement issued by the Prime Minister’s Office.

Netanyahu said he would discuss the possibility of Trump attending the May opening of the US embassy in Jerusalem.

“I’ll definitely discuss with him that possibility,” Netanyahu said in response to a journalist’s question.

Netanyahu is expected to receive a warm welcome at the White House on Monday, where he will meet with the president and senior staff, including Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, a point man for mediation between Israel and the Palestinians. Kushner and a small team, including special envoy to the Middle East Jason Greenblatt, have spent the past year preparing a much-awaited blueprint for peace, but no details have emerged. Kushner has been in the spotlight the week after losing his top-secret security clearance.

Netanyahu has been a close ally of the US president, not least as his administration is set to upturn decades of international consensus, and US policy, when the US moves its embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem in May.

On Tuesday, Netanyahu will speak before an expected crowd of 18,000 at the AIPAC conference, after having done so by satellite link the last two years.

An official itinery for the trip has not yet been released but the prime minister is scheduled to speak at the Economic Club of Washington on Wednesday before flying to New York to attend a farewell event that evening for Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky, who is stepping down after nine years in the role. On Thursday, before flying back to Israel, Netanyahu is also scheduled to attend the opening of an exhibition at the United Nations headquarters displaying Jerusalem artifacts.

The US trip comes as Netanyahu is facing intensifying police investigations in Israel.

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.

The case involves suspicions that Shaul Elovitch, chief shareholder of telecommunications giant Bezeq, ordered the Walla news site, which he also owns, to grant fawning coverage to the Netanyahus in exchange for the prime minister’s advancement of regulations benefiting him.

The two were questioned separately for five hours, and are both likely to face further interrogation in the case, Hadashot TV news reported on Friday.

Asked to confirm whether the prime minister or his wife were being treated as criminal suspects, a police spokesman remained vague, telling The Times of Israel only that the interrogations took place “in general, as part of the investigation.”

Also Friday, officials involved in the Bezeq corruption probe said that Netanyahu will be hard-pressed to explain away the “concrete” suspicions and “solid” evidence against him, Hadashot TV news reported.

Officials also told Hadashot that suspicions against Netanyahu in the investigation, known as Case 4000, are more serious than those ascribed to him in previous cases 1000 and 2000 — in both of which police have recommended he be indicted for fraud, breach of trust, and bribery.

Police investigators believe the evidence they have, including testimonies, physical evidence, and audio tapes, directly ties Netanyahu and his wife to the alleged crimes, according to Hadashot.

One unnamed source told the TV station the case has “a very clear bottom line,” and that investigators do not see a way for Netanyahu to explain the evidence gathered against him. Another said the prime minister had been caught lying in previous rounds of questioning — relating to the investigations of cases 1000 and 2000.

Last month, police recommended that the prime minister be indicted for a series of serious corruption charges including bribery, fraud, and breach of trust in the two other cases.

In Case 1000, Netanyahu and his wife are suspected of receiving illicit gifts from billionaire benefactors, amounting to some NIS 1 million ($282,000) worth of cigars and champagne from the Israeli-born Hollywood producer Arnon Milchan and Australian resort owner James Packer, in return for certain benefits.

Case 2000 involves a suspected illicit quid-pro-quo deal between Netanyahu and Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper publisher Arnon Mozes that would have seen the prime minister weaken a rival daily, the Sheldon Adelson-backed Israel Hayom, in return for more favorable coverage from Yedioth.

Netanyahu denies any wrongdoing in these cases.

AFP contributed to this report.

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