When Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrived at the White House on Monday, it was under clouds of controversy – both his own and those of his hosts.
Netanyahu and his inner circle are entangled in a series of corruption scandals back home that has put his political future in jeopardy. President Donald Trump and his campaign associates are themselves weathering an investigation into possible collusion with Russia.
Neither topic was raised when the two men addressed reporters from the Oval Office – their only public appearance Monday. The traditional joint press conference that foreign leaders convene when visiting the White House was left off the schedule.
Trump offered no hint of concern at appearing alongside the scandal-plagued Netanyahu. Instead he offered an enthusiastic assessment of their ties.
“They’ve been friends for a long time,” Trump said of Netanyahu and his wife, Sara, who accompanied her husband to Washington and is also a suspect in one of the police investigations. “We have, I would say, probably the best relationships right now with Israel that we ever had. I think we’re as close now as maybe ever before.”
Legally and politically, Netanyahu finds himself in a far more precarious position than Trump. But in at least one big way, the uncertainty and strife at the White House intersected with Netanyahu’s visit: a central US interlocutor on Middle East peace, senior adviser Jared Kushner, has had his access to top-secret information yanked amid a crackdown on interim security clearances.
That decision came at the behest of chief of staff John Kelly, who wants to bring order to the system of accessing classified information at the White House. Multiple aides and people close to Kushner have insisted the downgrade to a “secret” clearance won’t affect his ability to work on Middle East issues. The visit from Netanyahu was the first high-profile engagement for Kushner since he lost his “top secret” access.
It was evident even before the Netanyahus arrived at the South Portico on Monday that Kushner would play a role in the visit. A day before the Israeli leader sat for talks with Trump, Kushner paid him a visit at Blair House, the presidential guest quarters across Pennsylvania Avenue, along with other top administration officials.
Kushner has been leading efforts to broker an Israeli-Palestinian peace proposal. The administration has hinted they are close to revealing a plan. But any accord will be colored by recent actions taken by Trump to formally recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and begin moving the US embassy there from Tel Aviv.
“That was a decision I had to make,” Trump said in the Oval Office on Monday. “Many presidents were discussing whether or not to make that decision, and they promised it in their campaigns, but they never were able to do what they should have done. So I was able to do it, and I think it’s something that’s very much appreciated in Israel.”
Palestinian negotiators have refused to meet with the US following those pronouncements but that hasn’t stopped the US from moving forward with the plan. The State Department announced recently that the embassy move would formally take effect on May 14, a far speedier timeline than originally expected. Before leaving Israel, Netanyahu left open the possibility of Trump traveling to Jerusalem for the ribbon-cutting, and Trump said on Monday he “may” travel there.
“We’re looking at coming,” Trump said. “If I can, I will.”
Trump said he believed the Palestinians are “wanting to come back to the table very badly” – but did not expand on that claim.
Trump has said previously that Israel would need to make its own concessions in talks with Palestinians if any peace agreement can be reached but did not raise that issue during his public remarks on Monday. Netanyahu offered praise for the Jerusalem decision, telling Trump that “others talked about it. You did it.”
Ahead of their talks, US and Israeli officials said Iran would be the main subject of discussion between the two leaders. Trump has worked to alter the Obama-era nuclear agreement, which both he and Netanyahu have derided. European allies, which helped negotiate the accord, have resisted any efforts to alter its terms.
Netanyahu asserted in the Oval Office the agreement had “emboldened” and “enriched” Tehran.
If I had to say what is our greatest challenge in the Middle East to both our countries, to our Arab neighbors, it’s encapsulated in one word: Iran,” he said.
Tensions between Israel and Iran have increased in recent months, with the downing of an Israeli warplane by Syria and following the interception of an Iranian drone over Israel. Netanyahu was expected to ask for US assistance in preventing Iran from gaining a stronger foothold in Syria as the civil war there deteriorates.
In coming to Washington, Netanyahu was hoping to escape political turmoil back home. A warm welcome at the White House, and a speech to a receptive audience at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee – AIPAC – conference, could distract momentarily from the graft allegations. Netanyahu was questioned “under caution” by police at his home on Friday, making him a suspect in three separate corruption investigations. His wife, Sara, who was simultaneously questioned at a different location, is also a suspect in one of the investigations.
Israeli police say they have enough evidence to indict Netanyahu on bribery, fraud and breach of trust in two cases, and the attorney general there is deciding whether to file charges, a process that could take months. White House officials said it was unlikely those issues would arise during talks with Trump.
In a Facebook video posted shortly after the interrogations concluded on Friday, Netanyahu, speaking for himself and his wife, proclaimed their innocence, saying: “(I am) more certain than even there will be nothing.”
So far, Netanyahu has the support of his coalition partners who have said they will wait for the attorney general’s decision.