Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gestures as he speaks during a Likud faction meeting at the Knesset (Israel's Parliament) in Jerusalem on  January 2, 2017.
Netanyahu denied any wrongdoing ahead of his expected questioning by police in a graft probe, telling his political opponents to put any "celebrations" on hold. / AFP / GALI TIBBON        (Photo credit should read GALI TIBBON/AFP/Getty Images)
Netanyahu, Trump to rekindle US-Israel bond
02:00 - Source: CNN

Story highlights

Netanyahu is the fourth world leader Trump meets at the White House

Trump campaigned on a pledge to improve ties

Washington CNN  — 

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was in Washington on Valentine’s Day to renew the US-Israel romance after eight strained years during the Obama administration.

The Israeli leader and President Donald Trump could both use a boost when they meet Wednesday, particularly before strains develop. Though both men have declared their mutual support and outlined similar views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the realities of the region and entrenched positions on all sides are likely to intrude on the relationship at some point.

For now, though, they’re still in the honeymoon phase.

“It’s going to be an absolute love fest,” said Hussein Ibish, a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute, speaking of the meeting.

“They both know the likelihood is that in the long run there will be tensions and an argument,” he said, given that Trump has indicated he wants to tackle a Middle East peace agreement and has sent conflicting signals on Israel. “But for now, there are no major issues between them. It’s going to be a honeymoon.”

Trump needs to counter renewed questions about his judgment on international issues after national security adviser Michael Flynn resigned amid questions about his ties to Russia. The President wants to make good on campaign promises to improve ties with Israel and is also considering helping Israel attempt to normalize its relations with Sunni Arab states such as Saudi Arabia.

For his part, Netanyahu is coming off years of a tense and sometimes bitter relationship with President Barack Obama. Bibi, as he’s known, is looking to bolster his perch as Israel’s steward of the relationship with Washington, in part to defend himself against challenges from right-wing members of his party.

Being one of the first foreign leaders to visit the new US president gives Israel and its leader status. More crucially, it gives him a chance to shape the new US administration’s nascent Middle East policy and gain some clarity on mixed and potentially worrying signals for Israel.

As Netanyahu arrives at the White House on Wednesday, he’ll be meeting with a US president who hasn’t quite decided on key points.

A source with knowledge of the policy deliberations said the White House is still figuring out what its policy toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will be.

“I think they don’t know yet,” the source said.

When it comes to the concept of the two-state solution to the conflict, a bedrock of current US policy, a senior US official said, “Maybe, maybe not. It’s something the two sides have to agree to. It’s not for us to impose that vision.”

Already, Arab diplomats who have spoken to the White House have had some affect.

The source said the UAE’s ambassador to the US has been “very influential” in the process, urging the administration to moderate its stance from Trump’s campaign rhetoric.

As a result, the White House has moderated its stance on two key issues: moving the US embassy to Jerusalem and its stance on settlements – as evidenced by Trump’s recent interview with the Israel Hayom newspaper expressing concerns about further construction.

“They’ve confronted the reality of the situation and the complexity of the situation for the first time,” this source said. “What clearly happened was, he heard from the Arabs, which had not happened prior to his victory.”

Should Netanyahu expect detailed assurances from Trump on Wednesday, he is likely to be “disappointed.”

In addition, Netanyahu might be worried about “the sheer instability and unpredictability of this president,” said Dan Shapiro, US ambassador to Israel under Obama. He added that some of the churn is normal for a change in administration, but “some of it is unique to Trump. Here is a guy who one day can pick a fight with China, Mexico and Australia and the next day walk it back.”

“Netanyahu may be nervous to work with this guy,” Shapiro said. “He will want the meeting to be friendly without any problems. But what happens one day if Netanyahu’s can’t deliver on something? That is when Trump’s vindictive side could come out.”

For now, though, “media expectations are very low, no one is expecting them to come out with announcements” during this visit, according to former Obama State Department official David Makovsky. Which means, he said, that this moment could be “a sweet spot” for both leaders.

The Trump-Netanyahu meeting, set to take place Wednesday at the White House, will cover Iran, Syria, ISIS and the two countries’ ties, said White House spokesman Sean Spicer. He also said the two leaders will discuss the prospects for Middle East peace, an effort that Trump has said he wants his son-in-law Jared Kushner to lead.

Kushner has a prior personal relationship with Netanyahu, another way in which those greeting him at the White House are likely to give the Israeli Prime Minister a warmer welcome than he’s had in recent years.

The “administration will work to achieve comprehensive agreement that would end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict so that Israelis and Palestinians can live in peace and security,” Spicer said Tuesday. “The way forward toward that goal will also be discussed between the President and the Prime Minister.”

Their talks will cover four core areas, with Iran being a primary focus. While Trump had spoken of scrapping the Iran nuclear deal outright, his administration has scaled back and is talking about improving enforcement.

Netanyahu is now “much more concerned about” provisions of the deal that expire, said David Makovsky, who worked on the peace process in Obama’s State Department and is now at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Netanyahu also wants a better understanding of Trump’s desire to cooperate with Russia in Syria, which borders Israel. The Russians are working alongside Iran to support Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. If Trump cooperates with Russia on the fight against ISIS, Israel wants to know how it would affect them, how they can isolate Iran and keep it, or its proxies, away from the southern border with Israel, Makovsky said.

A third issue on the table – also related to Iran – is the convergence between Israel and Sunni Arab states. All are concerned about Iran’s influence and there has been growing, if discreet, cooperation on intelligence and security matters.

Trump campaigned on a slew of deeply pro-Israel policies, including a stated desire to move the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, a move traditionally left for final status talks between Israelis and Palestinians.

And he appointed an ambassador to Israel who has personally supported settlement construction in the West Bank, where Palestinians hope to establish their own state. After Trump’s election, a seemingly emboldened Israeli government announced approvals to add thousands more homes in existing settlements and the parliament passed a law legalizing thousands of settler homes in the territory.

But since his inauguration, Trump has moderated from some of those positions. He told an Israeli newspaper that settlements “don’t help the peace process” and, for now, seems to have backed away from moving the embassy to Jerusalem.

The source with knowledge of the Middle East policy deliberations said that moving the embassy hasn’t altogether been taken off the table, but White House officials have been warned about the broader implications such a decision could have in the Arab world.

The source said it appears the administration is moving toward aligning its policy with the George W. Bush administration’s, particularly on settlements.

To some degree, the shift in messaging reflects the transition from the campaign to governing, said Shapiro, the former US ambassador to Israel. Promises like the embassy move and signals sent by appointing a settlement-supporting US ambassador are “running face to face with how it affects other interests,” Shapiro said. “The administration is coming to terms with the fact those campaign statements don’t hold up against reality.”

Kushner, who Trump has said will be his chief negotiator for Middle East peace, has been making rounds, discussing the situation with influential Arabs, such as Jordan’s King Abdullah and UAE ambassador Yousef al-Otaiba. Diplomats say that Kushner has shown he cares about the issue in meetings, saying that while he lacks technical or historical knowledge, he is smart, asks good questions and listens. And they note that he has the most valuable quality of speaking for the President and having his ear.

Arab diplomats saw Trump’s slowing down of the embassy and the statement about settlements partly as a product of the conversations Kushner has been having, saying they appear to have sobered the administration a little. For now, it’s likely that Trump’s Ambassador David Friedman lives and works out of an office in Jerusalem but the full scale relation is put off while the US consults with Israel and allies in the region.

Spicer has said the US is in the “beginning stages” of talking to Israel about the embassy.

Meanwhile, Israel has made clear to the US this is not their first priority – combating Iran, the conflict in Syria and improving relations with Arabs are higher on the list.