Israeli Prime Minister to meet Trump in White House as scandal grows back home

Washington, USA Published: Mar 05, 2018, 04:49 PM(IST)

File photo of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Photograph:( Reuters )

Benjamin Netanyahu was to meet his "true friend" Donald Trump in Washington on Monday, even as an ex-aide to the Israeli prime minister signed a state witness deal in a corruption probe tightening around him back home.

Netanyahu, who is also grappling with a spreading governmental crisis that could trigger early elections, was due to meet Trump in the Oval Office and have a working lunch with the US leader, although analysts said little of note was likely to emerge from the meeting.

The Israeli leader has embraced the Trumpian tactic of denouncing as "fake news" the corruption allegations hanging over his head, a method Trump has honed in dealing with an investigation into whether his campaign team colluded with Russia during the 2016 US elections.

Trump has offered unswerving support for Israel and its government, and the two leaders were sure to discuss his recognition of Jerusalem as the Israeli capital, a controversial move that received an extra boost Monday when Guatemala announced it too was moving its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

The two leaders were also expected to discuss efforts to curb Iran's regional influence.

The White House meeting, held during Netanyahu's visit to the annual conference of the influential lobby group the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), will provide a boost for the right-wing Israeli leader as scandals and political turmoil brew at home.

"I think they are partners in ideology, and the ideology is a populist, conservative ideology which says that the old liberal elites are against us," said Gayil Talshir, a political scientist at Jerusalem's Hebrew University. 

The Israeli leader's domestic problems mounted even as he prepared to meet Trump, when Israeli media reported that a former spokesman for his family, Nir Hefetz, had become the third Netanyahu associate to sign a state witness deal with prosecutors in recent months.

Hefetz is alleged to have acted as a messenger between Netanyahu, the telecoms mogul Shaul Elovitch and the news website Walla!, media reports said.

Police suspect the telecoms firm Bezeq was given regulatory breaks in return for Netanyahu receiving positive coverage on Walla!, a news website owned by Bezeq.

Hefetz is also suspected of trying to bribe a retired judge to block a probe into the prime minister's wife, Sara Netanyahu, over alleged misuse of public funds, according to reports.

Countering Iran

While Trump's plan to move the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem this year has brought the two leaders closer together, it has infuriated the Palestinian leadership and was condemned by 128 states in a United Nations General Assembly vote in December. 

The issue has also caused a widening rift in US public opinion. A survey in January by the Pew Research Center showed that 79 percent of Republicans were more sympathetic towards Israel than the Palestinians, against just 27 percent among Democrats.

The Middle East peace process grew even more complicated recently after Jared Kushner, the president's son-in-law and one of his senior advisers, lost his top-secret security clearance. 

But Netanyahu is not thought to be overly concerned about any delay in restarting the peace talks.

In his encounters with Trump and at the AIPAC conference, he is expected to focus mainly on Iran as Israel's greatest enemy, and one he says seeks a permanent military presence in neighboring Syria.

The prime minister is also expected to call again for changes to, or the cancellation of, the nuclear accord between world powers and Iran, said Zalman Shoval, a former Israeli ambassador to Washington. 

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