Israeli PM’s ‘make or break’ Washington visit


Benjamin Netanyahu heads to Washington this weekend for what analysts describe as a “make or break” visit in which the embattled Israeli prime minister will leverage his popularity in the US against the corruption allegations dogging him back home.

On Monday, Netanyahu will meet US President Donald Trump in the White House and address the annual meeting of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), a lobby group representing 18,000 pro-Israel Americans, lawmakers and policy advisers.

Michael Koplow, an analyst at the Israel Policy Forum, a think tank, said Netanyahu will seek to counter a political firestorm in Israel, where police say they have enough evidence for the Likud leader to be charged with bribery in two corruption cases.
“Netanyahu has been backed into a corner, and he will use his trip to Washington to see if he can buy himself some leverage,” Koplow told Arab News.

His AIPAC speech is likely to heap praise on Trump’s Republican administration, which has recently cut cash-flows to Palestinian refugees, recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and started relocating the US embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to the Holy City, said Koplow.

“He needs to have Trump effusively praise him and bask in the adoration of thousands of cheering AIPAC delegates, and then remind the Israeli public and his coalition partners that it is through his unique political talents and insights into the US that the Trump administration recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital,” said Koplow.

Netanyahu has been hounded by sleaze allegations for months, but police only recommended charging him in February and the attorney general is yet to decide whether to indict the 68-year-old in either of the corruption cases.

In one, he is suspected of bribery over gifts from rich businessmen, which police valued at $300,000. The other involves an alleged plot to win favorable coverage in Israel’s biggest newspaper by offering to try to curtail the circulation of a rival daily.

Netanyahu, a titan of Israeli politics who has been in power since 2009, denies the allegations. Insiders are speculating whether he will call a snap election in an attempt to stall the legal proceedings during the campaign and to rally his right-wing power base behind him.

At AIPAC, which lobbies US legislators to arm Israel and counter Iran, he will speak alongside Trump administration heavyweights such as Vice President Mike Pence, UN envoy Nikki Haley and ambassador to Israel David Friedman.

The lobby prides itself on having broad support among Democrats and Republicans and the March 4-6 gathering features Adam Schiff, a California Democrat, and other liberal lawmakers. But recent data from Pew Research Center suggest that bipartisan support for Israel is ebbing.

A survey in January found that 79 percent of Republicans say they sympathize more with Israel than the Palestinians, compared with just 27 percent of Democrats — a divide that has widened in the past two decades, researchers said.

The timing of the visit is key. Trump administration officials speak of unveiling a long-awaited Israeli-Palestinian peace plan “soon,” while Israeli right-wingers push for Washington’s acquiescence over the annexation of Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank.

Jonathan Cristol, a fellow at the World Policy Institute, a think tank, said Netanyahu will “grandstand for the domestic audience” at AIPAC, but questioned whether delegates from Israel would back the prime minister when at the podium themselves.

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