This week Prime Minister Netanyahu will make his first visit to the White House since President Trump took office. Both men will want to present a strong unified front and ensure the meeting goes well. This should not be too difficult given the common world views that they share. The big question is what issues will they prioritize and what will be on the agenda.
Based on what Prime Minister Netanyahu has said both publicly and in reported private conversations, we should expect Iran to be at the very top of his list. He has indicated that he is determined to encourage Trump to renegotiate the nuclear agreement. It is not clear precisely what he means by this and the reality is that the nuclear agreement is not just an agreement between the United States and Iran but also includes the other great powers none of whom have an interest in reopening parts of the agreement. Moreover, while the Israeli security establishment is not thrilled with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, it has come around to the deal and certainly believes that it will be impossible at this point to negotiate a better alternative. They may try to convince the Prime Minister to look beyond the JCPOA and discuss other issues. However, Iran’s nuclear program remains Netanyahu’s White Whale and he has already shown that he is capable of disregarding all advice accept from his innermost circle, when in 2015 he inserted himself into a direct confrontation between President Obama and Congress over the objections of his security advisors.,
For its part, the Trump administration has chosen to vigorously enforce the agreement and call Iran out on its destabilizing regional behavior in Yemen and its ballistic missile tests. It is possible that Trump and Netanyahu may agree to pursue a strategy that slowly kills the agreement through increased sanctions and hostile rhetoric, but leaves it to the Iranians to walk away. But even in that scenario, unfortunately the attempt is likely to be too ham handed and the international community will inevitably put most of the blame for the collapse of the agreement on the Trump administration making it difficult to reimpose sanctions.
On the Israeli-Palestinian conflict the situation is more opaque. The White House’s statement last week on settlements while slightly better than keeping silent, still give Netanyahu and his coalition significant flexibility to build additional units anywhere where units currently exist, including in settlements that are deep in the West Bank and would likely need to be evacuated as part of a two state agreement.
It is also quite possible that Netanyahu might want Trump to deploy some gentle criticism on settlements. Netanyahu understands that extreme steps such as the retroactive legalization of outposts will cause an international outcry and isolate Israel. He has made a half hearted case against taking these steps fearing the political consequences of fighting back too firmly. But some criticism from Trump could give Netanyahu ammunition in his arguments with Bennett and the far right Bennett wing of his coalition. Unfortunately, this would require a highly sensitive conversation between Trump and Netanyahu that would have to stay secret. And given this White House’s penitent for porous leaks it is unlikely Netanyahu would take the political risk of raising this issue for fear it would get out and cause political blowback at home.
The most likely scenario is that Trump and Netanyahu agree on some economic measures that Israel will take to help improve the situation in the West Bank. But many of these economic steps will never be implemented because of a combination of Israeli bureaucracy and lack of political will.
On the movement of the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem Netanyahu is also in a tough spot. On the one hand he cannot ask Trump to not do it. But he also is unlikely to make this a high priority. He has surely heard from King Abdullah and other Arab leaders about their concerns and recognizes that the potential destabilizing consequences and violence both in the Arab World and in the West Bank and Gaza mean that the move is an unnecessary risk. Netanyahu’s best bet will be to not raise the issue at all and by not doing so imply to Trump and his team that the embassy is not a high priority issue.
The Syria issue is also likely to be on the agenda. Israel has remarkably managed to avoid any major negative repercussions from the brutal war currently raging to its north. Meanwhile President Trump has indicated a desire to negotiate an agreement to end the conflict with the Russians. Netanyahu is likely to lay out two major concerns that Israel would have in any Syria agreement. First, Israel must maintain the flexibility to launch strikes into Syria to intercept weapons shipments going from Damascus to Hezbollah. Second, any agreement must ensure that the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, Al Qaeda, or ISIS do not end up with a toehold on Israel’s Northern border. Right now this area in Syria is controlled primarily by moderate Syrian opposition forces and an agreement should ensure that they stay in place.
Trump and Netanyahu are also likely to discuss the possibility of Israel-Egypt-U.S. cooperation. Israel and Egypt have been increasing cooperation in recent years to counter the threat posed by extremists in the Sinai. And Trump and Sisi seem to be building a good relationship and putting strengthening the U.S.-Egypt relationship after a rocky last few years. This creates a unique and positive opportunity. Israel-Egyptian cooperation has often been limited to the tactical. But with these players at this time Trump can make deepening U.S.-Israel-Egypt strategic cooperation a major priority of his policy in the Middle East over the next few years.
Finally, Netanyahu should raise the White House’s statement on International Holocaust Remembrance Day, which omitted any direct reference to the murder of 6 million Jews. It is quite shocking and sad that this needs to be on the agenda at all and quite disappointing that Netanyahu has failed to comment publicly about this. But at this point he should raise the statement privately and ask the President to have the White House issue a statement on Yom HaShoah on April 24 that clearly references the murder of six million Jews at the hands of the Nazis. He should also make clear that if the next statement does not include a direct reference to Jewish victims of the holocaust, he will not stay silent again.