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Netanyahu aims to embrace Trump in White House visit amid scandals in Israel

President Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shake hands in Jerusalem in May 2017.
President Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shake hands in Jerusalem in May 2017. (Ariel Schalit/AP)
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No world leader has forged a closer or more public camaraderie with President Trump than Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who visits the White House on Monday battling corruption allegations that have echoes in the White House itself.

Both leaders have sought to put their tight bond on frequent display during Trump’s first year as president — and that is likely to be especially true for Netanyahu now.

The Israeli prime minister is under legal scrutiny at home for his possible role in several far-reaching bribery scandals, including allegedly granting regulatory benefits worth millions of dollars to Israeli telecom giant Bezeq. He denies the allegations and is eager to highlight his politically valuable relationship with Trump, the pro-Israel leader of his country’s most important ally and defender.

Netanyahu is expected to invite Trump to a ribbon-cutting in May for the controversial relocated U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem, U.S. and Israeli officials said, although no visit is on the books.

Hours after Israeli police finished questioning him in one case Friday, a tired-looking Netanyahu released a Facebook video saying the investigations will yield nothing and highlighting his “important” visit to Washington and the meeting with “a great friend of Israel, a true friend, President Donald Trump.”

Trump, however, has problems of his own that are thrust into the spotlight by Netanyahu’s visit. Four former Trump associates have been charged or have pleaded guilty in an ongoing special counsel investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. And the president’s son-in-law and chief Middle East adviser, Jared Kushner, is under scrutiny for blurring business and government work and has lost his top-level security clearance.

“The fascinating thing is how strong the parallels are between Trump and Netanyahu” at this moment, said Jeremy Ben-Ami, president of J Street, a liberal U.S. pro-Israel advocacy group critical of both Trump and Netanyahu.

“This swirl of corruption and investigation, the conflict of interest, is at the center of both administrations. You see both men respond in the same way — attacks on fundamental institutions of democracy like the judiciary and the media,” Ben-Ami said.

The Israeli-Palestinian peace proposal that Kushner has worked for more than a year to draft remains on the shelf and is not at the top of the agenda for a meeting arranged alongside Netanyahu’s address to the influential American Israel Public Affairs Committee.

Palestinians have rebuffed U.S. officials and publicly written off Trump as a peacemaker since his December announcement that he would move the embassy from neutral Tel Aviv to disputed Jerusalem. Trump retaliated with an aid cut and the threat of more.

“The president and the prime minister share a great relationship and make an effort to meet whenever the opportunity arises,” said White House spokesman Joshua Raffel, adding that discussions will include “the Iran nuclear deal, the Syrian civil war, efforts to thwart Iran’s attempt to establish a permanent presence in Syria from which to threaten Israel, and the administration’s ongoing peace efforts.”

Netanyahu chose to address AIPAC in person this year, rather than by remote video link, as a way to underline his pull with the Trump administration and with conservative American Jews, analysts in the United States and Israel said.

Trump is not expected to address AIPAC in person. Vice President Pence, U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley and U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman will appear on behalf of the administration.

Trump and Netanyahu have met once since the embassy announcement — at the World Economic Forum in Switzerland in January. The embassy move delivered on a Trump campaign promise important to conservative Jewish and evangelical Christian supporters. It was pushed by Kushner and Friedman, and initially opposed by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis on national security grounds.

Trump also has said Israel will “pay for” the embassy move with reciprocal accommodations to the Palestinians in future negotiations. But as long as those negotiations are an aspiration rejected by the Palestinians, Netanyahu has little worry that Trump will put him on the spot over any difficult concessions, said David Makovsky, a former Obama administration peace negotiator.

That matters because Netanyahu has little leverage to do anything bold, Makovsky said.

“Netanyahu is in the fight of his life” legally and politically, Makovsky said.

“This Washington trip is a little bit, for Netanyahu, of a respite. It’s viewed as taking a victory lap on the moving of the U.S. Embassy,” he said. “Celebrating good news, as they would both define it, and neither of them is forced to take any big decisions on this trip, either.”

Friday’s police interview — less than 24 hours before he left for Washington — was the eighth such session for the long-serving Israeli prime minister. The inquiries relate to corruption scandals that have rocked his leadership and already brought two recommendations for indictments from law enforcement officials.

The scandals have had little impact on the stability of Netanyahu’s government, however, with his coalition partners, from the right-wing Jewish Home party to ultra-Orthodox factions, committed to keeping him.

Shmuel Rosner, a senior fellow at the Jewish People Policy Institute, said Trump is now faced with a dilemma on how to handle Netanyahu.

“He can choose one of the two approaches,” Rosner said. “ . . . He can identify with Netanyahu — both are in a similar situation; they can form a bond of people fighting against unjustified investigation and against an establishment reluctant to see them continue in their jobs, a bond of heads of state under suspicion.”

“The other path is to take the more cautious approach,” in which Trump calculates that it’s better to “put some distance between myself and him,” Rosner said, though he sees no sign of that from Trump so far.

Both U.S. and Israeli officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive legal and diplomatic issues, said Netanyahu poses risks and political benefits for Trump.

Although the investigations are very different and Trump is not currently a clear target for prosecution, the rough similarities are apparent. Kushner’s compromised position as a negotiator is “hard to ignore,” said one U.S. official.

Israeli police recommended two weeks ago that Netanyahu be indicted in two cases.

One involves gifts of cigars and jewelry amounting to more than $280,000 that the prime minister and his wife are suspected of receiving from billionaire benefactors such as ­Israeli-born Hollywood producer Arnon Milchan and Australian business executive James Packer.

The other involves deals made between Netanyahu and Arnon Mozes, publisher of the popular Israeli daily newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth. Israeli media have reported that the agreement involved a trade of favorable news coverage for Netanyahu if he agreed to weaken the status of rival daily newspaper Israel ­Hayom, owned by U.S. casino magnate Sheldon Adelson.

Trump gave a revealing interview to Israel Hayom last month in which he cast doubt on both Palestinian and Israeli willingness to make peace.

Israel’s attorney general must now decide whether to indict Netanyahu on these two cases.

Eglash reported from Jerusalem.