Netanyahu to dash to London Thursday, meet Johnson, amid UK political upheaval

Netanyahu to dash to London Thursday, meet Johnson, amid UK political upheaval

PM to discuss efforts to ‘rebuff Iran’s terrorism and aggression’ with embattled counterpart Boris Johnson; will also powwow with new US defense chief

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) meets with British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson in London, United Kingdom. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) meets with British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson in London, United Kingdom. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)

Despite a major political crisis in Britain, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu plans to embark on a “snap visit” to London on Thursday for meetings with UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson and US Secretary of Defense Mark Esper, his office announced Wednesday.

The spontaneously planned trip raised some eyebrows among political analysts, given the turmoil currently engulfing the British political system that is sure to take priority over any other matter in 10 Downing Street.

Talks with Johnson, who is facing a revolt within his Conservative party over his controversial plan to leave the European Union by the end of next month, will focus on “the situation in the region and the way to rebuff Iran’s terrorism and aggression,” Netanyahu’s office said.

The UK is one of the signatories of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal and continues to firmly back the agreement, but has recently clashed with the Islamic Republic after it detained a UK-flagged oil tanker in the Strait of Hormuz. British authorities had previously seized a tanker carrying Iranian oil off the coast of Gibraltar.

With Esper, who was sworn into office less than two months ago, Netanyahu, who is also defense minister, wants to talk about “Israel’s security needs,” according to the Prime Minister’s Office. The two spoke by telephone on Tuesday night and decided to expand on their conversation in London, Netanyahu’s office said.

In this July 8, 2019, photo, acting US Secretary of Defense Mark Esper waits for the arrival of Qatar’s Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani at the Pentagon. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

Earlier this week, Hebrew media reported that Jerusalem has been discussing with the US administration a grand presidential gesture underlining America’s commitment to Israeli security in the coming days, including a possible statement on the two allies’ intent to enter into a defense pact.

The most likely action, the newspaper said, was a vow by US President Donald Trump that the US will defend the Jewish state from any potential existential threat, though such a statement would have few practical implications. The proposed declaration has largely been seen as Trump’s effort to boost Netanyahu ahead of the September 17 elections.

Earlier on Wednesday, PMO officials said Netanyahu also hopes to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow before the Israeli national vote. The officials said plans were underway for the prime minister to visit the Russian capital “soon.”

But officials at the Russian Embassy in Tel Aviv cast some doubt on the prospects of a meeting, acknowledging there had been talk of a trip but noting that Israel had yet to submit requests for diplomatic visas for its delegation.

The announcement came days after Netanyahu canceled a visit to India, a move that spurred rumors the Israeli leader was eyeing a different high-profile trip to boost his electoral prospects ahead of the national vote later this month.

The prime minister had been confirmed to fly to New Delhi for a one-day trip on September 9, during which he was scheduled to meet with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and possibly sign a number of bilateral agreements.

But on Tuesday morning, Netanyahu called Modi to tell him that he would be unable to come due to “scheduling constraints.”

The prime minister’s visit to Delhi ahead of the September 17 poll was widely seen as a boost to his Likud party’s election strategy, which has been stressing his close ties with world leaders. Modi is one of three foreign statesmen — together with US President Donald Trump and Putin — who appear on huge campaign posters outside the Likud’s Tel Aviv headquarters.

Election campaign posters on the Likud party headquarters building in Tel Aviv showing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shaking hands with Russian President Vladimir Putin and US President Donald Trump, July 28, 2019. (Adam Shouldman/Flash90)

The premier’s ties to Putin, in particular, are seen as important in pulling in votes from Israel’s large community of Russian expats.

Russian-speaking voters are thought to make up some 12 percent of the 6.3 million eligible voters in Israel — or some 770,000.

Netanyahu has hoped to pull Russian community votes away from rival Avigdor Liberman, whose party has traditionally been their home. Liberman refused to enter Netanyahu’s coalition after the April election, denying him a majority coalition and leading the prime minister to call new elections.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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