Netanyahu’s Visiting The Trump White House For The First Time. Here’s What’s At Stake.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu left for Washington, D.C., on Monday for his first official visit to President Donald Trump’s White House.

The president has voiced a strong interest in the Middle East peace process ― hinting that his son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner, may lead the charge. For that goal to succeed, he will need the Israeli leader on his side.

The stakes are high for Netanyahu at Wednesday’s scheduled meeting. He had a strained relationship with former President Barack Obama. The pair disagreed on major policy decisions including global leaders’ nuclear deal with Iran and Israel’s settlement expansion plans. Netanyahu needs a strong ally in the White House if he hopes to deliver to the conservatives of his cabinet and influence the West on policy issues such as Iran. While Trump has promised that the U.S.-Israeli alliance will be different under his leadership, Netanyahu needs to translate that promise into actual commitments. 

Below are three of the major issues at stake for both leaders in the coming months. 

Settlement expansion

Many conservatives in Israel hope that Obama’s departure will herald the start of a drastic expansion of Israeli settlements in Palestinian-controlled areas. They’re putting tremendous pressure on Netanyahu to secure the U.S. president’s support. 

Israel has wasted no time since Trump’s inauguration. The Israeli government in recent weeks accelerated settlement expansion plans, approving the construction of thousands of new homes and even promoting the creation of an entirely new community. More than 590,000 Israelis already live in settlements in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power said in December.  

Ammar Awad / Reuters

Almost 600,000 people live in settlements in West Bank and East Jerusalem, according to U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Samantha Power. This photo shows the settlement of Efrat, in the occupied West Bank Feb. 7.

Not only do Palestinians view the settlements as a major impediment to peace, most countries consider them illegal under international law. One of Obama’s last moves as president was to let the U.S. abstain from voting on a U.N. Security Council motion condemning settlements and declaring them illegal ― a symbolic yet forceful stand against the policy.

It’s unclear, however, where Trump stands. After the Security Council vote in December, he pledged his administration would take a different approach. He didn’t specify how.

However, the Trump White House issued a statement this month that called on Israel to refrain from new construction. 

“While we don’t believe the existence of settlements is an impediment to peace, the construction of new settlements or the expansion of existing settlements beyond their current borders may not be helpful in achieving that goal,” the Feb. 2 statement reads. 

Ammar Awad / Reuters

Congress passed the Jerusalem Embassy Act, recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, in 1995. But every president who has been in office since then has signed national-security waivers to suspend it.

Potential Move Of The U.S. Embassy To Jerusalem 

Trump has promised throughout his campaign that he would be the American president to move the country’s embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, but he’s remained vague about whether he plans to follow through or not since entering the White House.

Trump isn’t the first to have weighed the embassy move. Congress passed the Jerusalem Embassy Act, recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, in 1995, but every president who has been in office since then has signed national-security waivers to suspend it.

Moving the U.S. embassy would send a message that the Trump administration recognizes Jerusalem as the Jewish capital, a move that would enrage Palestinians as they, too, consider the city their capital. Such action would complicate the peace process and almost certainly destabilize American relationships in the region, experts warn. 

“Relocating the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem would be a major boon to religious extremists in the Middle East, affirming the narratives of groups like ISIS and al Qaeda that the United States and Israel are waging a war against Islam,” said Khaled Elgindy, a Brookings Institute fellow, in January. “In addition, the United States would be forfeiting its role as a mediator in the conflict, and according to Palestinian officials risks becoming ‘a direct party to the conflict.’”

Trump this month walked back his promise.

“I’m thinking about it. I’m learning the issue and we’ll see what happens,” he told the Israeli newspaper Israel Hayom.

Kevin Lamarque / Reuters

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu clashed with former President Barack Obama on subjects including the Iran nuclear deal. 

Iran nuclear deal

Neither Netanyahu nor Trump are big fans of the Iran nuclear deal. The agreement, negotiated in 2015 between Iran, the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council and Germany, limits Tehran’s ability to develop its nuclear powers in return for eased sanctions.

Israel has long pushed for strong action against its foe. “There is no moderation in Iran,” Netanyahu said in 2014.  “It is unrepentant, unreformed, it calls for Israel’s eradication, it promotes international terrorism.” 

Netanyahu has come out as one of the staunchest opponents of the agreements with Iran, calling the move a “stunning, historic mistake.” He’s counting on Trump to help undo the deal. 

While Trump has threatened to scrap the agreement throughout his campaign, and his executive powers grant him the ability to overturn parts of it, it remains to be seen whether he will act unilaterally or consult with his cabinet.

It’s clear that some of his top advisors won’t suggest scrapping it. Secretary of Defense James Mattis has argued that undoing the deal would likely cause greater harm than good.  “I think it is an imperfect arms control agreement — it’s not a friendship treaty,” Mattis said in his confirmation hearing last month. “But when America gives her word, we have to live up to it and work with our allies.” 

Netanyahu, meantime, has upped the pressure on other allies to put new international sanctions on Iran in place. He unsuccessfully tried to convince British prime minister Theresa May to enforce new sanctions on a visit to London this week. 

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