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Sandro Rosell
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Monday, September 25, 2017

After years of tense relations with the United States under former President Barack Obama, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is emerging as one of the most prominent international personalities, according to multiple sources who told the Washington Free Beacon that Democrats, Republicans, and high-level White House officials are clamoring for a sit down with the Israeli leader on his current trip to Washington. He arrived on Tuesday for two days of meetings with President Trump and his cabinet members.  

Senior officials across party lines hope to let Netanyahu know that America has Israel's back and that years of tension during the Obama administration is just water under the bridge, according to both congressional sources and those close to the Trump administration.

Netanyahu's schedule is already packed with powwows between President Trump, senior administration officials, and a cast of leading lawmakers on Capitol Hill from both sides of the aisle.

Meetings will center on U.S. lawmakers' desire to reset relations with the Jewish state. Multiple sources told the Free Beacon that sit downs with White House officials will focus on holding Iran accountable for violations of the nuclear deal, moving the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, and combating efforts at the United Nations to delegitimize Israel.

Netanyahu is expected to meet with Trump and other senior officials Wednesday before heading to Capitol Hill, where he will meet with leading Democrats and Republicans.

Netanyahu is also expected to take separate meetings with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.) and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D., N.Y.), sources told the Free Beacon.

Further meetings could take place with members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee before Netanyahu travels to the House side of the Capitol for an evening meeting with House Speaker Paul Ryan (R., Wis.).

There is a strong desire among all parties to show Netanyahu that after nearly a decade of chilly relations during the former administration, the United States is prepared to restore the historic relationship with the Jewish state.

"Netanyahu's schedule is so full that he literally can't find time for all the high level meetings people want to have with him," said one veteran foreign policy adviser who is closely in touch with the White House on Middle East issues. "The truth of this is, it's nature taking its course."

Recent polling shows that support for Israel is at an all-time high among Democrats and Republicans. Democratic lawmakers in particular are no longer being pressured by the former administration to distance themselves from Netanyahu and Israel.

"Without Obama trying to force Democratic lawmakers to choose between Israel and the United States nature is taking its course and everyone wants to see how they can help bolster the U.S.-Israel relationship," the source said. "Voters want to see this."

One source characterized Netanyahu as the "cool kid in town."

On Capitol Hill, senior sources focused on the Middle East expect that lawmakers will emphasize a reset in relations with Israel. They also will seek to reassure Netanyahu that key foreign aid packages to Israel will remain robust and fully funded.

"There's broad recognition that it's time to turn a page on years of hostility towards Israel from the Obama administration. President Trump and the Republican Congress are focused on strengthening Israel's security and the U.S.-Israel relationship—not condemning housing projects in disputed territories and pushing anti-Semitic U.N. resolutions," said one senior congressional aide familiar with the Israeli leader's travel itinerary.

"This provides a major opportunity for both the United States and Israel to stand up to Iran and all those who seek to defame and destroy the Jewish state," the source said. "Given the warm relationship between Bibi and Trump, everyone seems upbeat and optimistic about the future of the alliance moving forward."

Dennis Ross, a veteran Middle East hand who worked for former presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Obama, told reporters on Monday that there is a strong desire to cast sour relations between the United States and Israel as a byproduct of the Obama administration.

That, Ross said during a conference call hosted by the Israel Project, is the "overriding message that emerges from this week,"

"Democrats will be anxious to show they're close to Israel as well," Ross said, adding that Netanyahu will convey the message that Israel's relationship is with America as a whole, not any one administration. 

Analysts say Netanyahu is seeking to forge common ground on Iran and regional issues as he meets with Trump for the first time as president.   

Netanyahu will be the fourth foreign leader to meet with Trump face-to-face at the White House, after British Prime Minister Theresa May, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

The analysts also say that Trump and Netanyahu want to set in motion a chain of events that could block Iran, redefine Israel’s relationship with the Arab world, and create Israeli-Palestinian peace.

A senior Israeli Cabinet minister said Monday Netanyahu no longer supports a Palestinian state, but stopped short of confirming whether the prime minister will make his stance public during Wednesday's talks with Trump.

Netanyahu declined to elaborate on his position on the Israeli-Palestinian two-state solution as he departed for the United States.

“Come with me, you will hear very clear answers, very clear answers,” said Netanyahu, when asked by a reporter if he still stands by the two-state solution.

“The Palestinians will be watching this very closely and will be looking for any hints that the U.S. policy has substantially changed,” said retired Ambassador Richard Lebaron, who served as deputy chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv from 2001 to 2004.

David Makovsky, director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy Project on the Middle East Peace Process, points to two big questions that will likely be the focal point of talks: “How to work with Arab states? How to constrain Iran’s influence in the region?”

Makovsky, who recently visited Israel, said the Iran nuclear deal and sanctions are among the main issues on the agenda for the Trump-Netanyahu meeting.

In July of 2015, Iran and six world powers reached a comprehensive agreement, the so-called Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which curbed Tehran’s ability to produce nuclear weapons in exchange for lifting stringent economic sanctions.

Trump and Netanyahu are strong critics of this deal. They have also advocated for the termination of JCPOA, which was backed by the Obama administration.

But many see an evolving approach of the Trump administration, shifting from dismantling the deal to tightening its enforcement, while increasing pressure on Iran for its recent ballistic missile test.

“I was reassured by what I heard in the meetings on the intention to stick to the full implementation of the agreement,” EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said Friday, after talks at the White House and State Department.

“I think the debate about ripping up the agreement has essentially been settled and there are very few prominent voices [advocating that]," said Robert Satloff, executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, “The debate is within the how do you enforce the hell out of it."

Career diplomat Lebaron told VOA he does not sense "an immediate need on either side to dismantle the agreement per se.”

Instead the former ambassador to Kuwait says he expects “robust" discussion on how to continue the pressure on Iran over its behavior, including its actions in Syria, Lebanon and other countries in the region.

“Keeping in mind also that this agreement involves several other major powers,” Lebaron added.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has said Tehran will “strongly confront any war-mongering policies” amid increased tensions with the United States following Trump's election.

President Trump has made promises that were viewed as veering sharply from longstanding U.S. policy regarding the Israel-Palestine dispute.

He has pledged to relocate the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, an approach that would break decades of U.S policy, which calls for the city’s disputed status to be resolved through negotiations.

Trump has also signaled that he would take a much softer approach to the settlements.

Last December, he criticized the Obama administration’s decision to abstain on a U.N. Security Council resolution that condemned Israel’s settlement construction in the West Bank.

“I expect the president to find a way to implement and fulfill these promises," said Satloff.

He added those promises have a role to play in whether Netanyahu can return home with enough political gains “to enable him to withstand the pressure” from Israel’s right-wing.

But others said the meeting could be primarily symbolic.

“There is no doubt that in a certain way there’s a lower expectation because, indeed, President Trump doesn’t have a team in place,” said Washington Institute's Makovsky. “It’s easier for him to say, 'I’m in a listening mode”.

Though Trump has expressed an intention to facilitate peace between Israel and the Palestinians, he has not indicated much sympathy with the aspirations of the latter.

The Palestinians are “already seeing that in the way the president refers to settlements and so there will be some apprehension about how this may unfold,” said Ambassador Lebaron.

Before flying home Thursday, Netanyahu plans to meet U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Republican and Democratic Congressional leaders. 

 By: Adam Kredo
(Washington Free Beacon)