President Donald Trump will host Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for a dinner and talks at the White House next week, just two weeks before Israeli elections that will determine whether Netanyahu stays in power.
Trump’s decision to host the prime minister so close to the Israeli elections will undoubtedly be viewed by some as an effort by Trump – who enjoys sky-high approval ratings in Israel – to tip the scales in Netanyahu’s favor. And Netanyahu, who has made his close relationship with Trump central to his re-election campaign, will undoubtedly play up his visit in the final campaign stretch.
The decision is a striking contrast to Netanyahu’s trip to Washington weeks before the 2015 Israeli elections, when President Barack Obama refused to meet with Netanyahu to avoid appearing to influence that year’s elections.
This time, Netanyahu will enjoy a two-day visit with the US President. White House press secretary Sarah Sanders announced on Wednesday that Trump would host Netanyahu for a working meeting on Monday, followed by a dinner on Tuesday. Netanyahu was already scheduled to be in Washington next week for the annual conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, or AIPAC, as will his primary opponent, retired Israeli Gen. Benny Gantz.
Aside from its nearness to Israel’s elections, the visit comes as Netanyahu faces multiple investigations into corruption. Israel’s attorney general announced in February he would indict Netanyahu pending a hearing. That isn’t expected to occur until well after next month’s election.
The prime minister has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing, denouncing the investigations as a media-led witch hunt.
Obama in 2015 defended his decision not to meet with Netanyahu by citing a “general policy” of not meeting with world leaders so close to an election.
“I’m declining to meet with him simply because our general policy is, we don’t meet with any world leader two weeks before their election,” Obama said in an interview with CNN’s Fareed Zakaria. “I think that’s inappropriate, and that’s true with some of our closest allies.”
Later, the White House cited “longstanding practice and principle” in declining to meet with visiting heads of state or candidates as their elections near “so as to avoid the appearance of influencing a democratic election in a foreign country.”
In the CNN interview, Obama cited another visit the same year from then-British Prime Minister David Cameron had to be moved forward by several months when it was determined the originally scheduled date fell to close to UK elections.
The decision to refuse Netanyahu an Oval Office sit-down came as the Obama administration was finalizing the Iran nuclear deal, which Netanyahu vehemently opposed.
Netanyahu was, however, invited by House Speaker John Boehner to address a joint session of Congress, during which Netanyahu railed against the impending Iran deal and advocated for new sanctions – a move Obama administration officials assailed for breaking diplomatic protocol.
Many Democrats, including then-Vice President Joe Biden, skipped the address.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who is meeting with Netanyahu in Israel this week, defended his visit to Israel so close to the upcoming elections.
“There’s always an election. We’ve got an election a year away and they’ve got one that’s less than a month away,” Pompeo said. “I’m going to Israel because of the important relationship we have.”
He added that the relationship matters “no matter who the leaders are.”
Trump’s meeting with Netanyahu also comes as the Israeli administration is renewing its push for the US to recognize the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights as Israeli territory. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina, said during a visit to Israel earlier this month that he planned to lobby Trump to fulfill the Israeli request.
Doing so before the elections, though, would be a highly controversial move that would likely boost Netanyahu’s chances of remaining in power.
Meeting with Pompeo on Wednesday, Netanyahu said he was looking forward to meeting with Trump next week and once again made his case for recognition of the Golan Heights, which Israel captured from Syria during the Six Day War of 1967 and has since annexed.
Netanyahu said it is time “for the international community to recognize Israel’s stay in the Golan. The fact that the Golan will always remain part of the state of Israel.”
CNN’s Jennifer Hansler contributed to this report.