White House Upheaval Complicates Netanyahu Visit
WASHINGTON — When Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel meets with President Trump on Wednesday, in their first face-to-face encounter since Mr. Trump’s inauguration, the turmoil in the White House could complicate what many had expected would be a triumphant reception.
The resignation of Mr. Trump’s national security adviser, Michael T. Flynn, deprives Mr. Netanyahu of his strongest ally inside the White House for raising pressure on Iran. And the emergence of Jared Kushner, Mr. Trump’s son-in-law, as an aspiring Middle East peacemaker has increased the president’s enthusiasm for a peace initiative between the Israelis and Palestinians — something Mr. Netanyahu is not eager to discuss.
Given the still-fluid nature of the Trump administration and its policies, Mr. Netanyahu’s visit is likely to be more symbolic than substantive. Mr. Trump, having presented himself as a steadfast defender of Israel during the presidential campaign, is likely to project an image of solidarity with Mr. Netanyahu. But he has already edged away from the Netanyahu government on a critical issue, settlement construction in the West Bank.
There are other signs that Mr. Trump is moderating his approach to Israel amid a fraught political environment. On Thursday, his nominee as ambassador to Israel, David M. Friedman, is expected to apologize during his Senate confirmation hearing for derogatory comments he made about liberal American Jews, according to congressional officials.
Representatives of Mr. Friedman, a bankruptcy lawyer from Long Island who has long done legal work for Mr. Trump, told Senator Benjamin L. Cardin of Maryland, the senior Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, and other officials that he would express regret for saying that supporters of the liberal pro-Israel group J Street were “worse than kapos,” Jewish prisoners who worked for the Nazis in concentration camps.
Mr. Friedman’s appointment has drawn strident opposition from liberal Jewish groups, who viewed it as an ominous sign of Mr. Trump’s intentions in the region. Mr. Friedman has raised money for a settlement in the West Bank, derided the two-state solution and pushed to move the American Embassy to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv.
The White House, however, has slowed down its plan to move the embassy, even though Mr. Trump vowed to do it during the campaign. And after appearing to give the Israeli government a free hand in settlement construction, the president told an Israeli newspaper, Israeli Hayom, last week that settlements “don’t help” the peace process. “Every time you take land for settlements,” he said, “there is less land left.”
Mr. Netanyahu’s main goal this visit, analysts said, is to marshal American support for rigorously enforcing the Iran nuclear deal. That position has broad support inside the administration, including from Mr. Trump’s chief strategist, Stephen K. Bannon, and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis.
But the biggest hawk on Iran in the White House may have been Mr. Flynn. In his only public appearance as national security adviser, on Feb. 1, he warned Iran that it was being “put on notice” for what he said was a pattern of aggressive behavior in the region.
With Mr. Flynn no longer in the picture, and Mr. Mattis and Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson are traveling, the Netanyahu-Trump meeting is likely to include Mr. Kushner and Mr. Bannon. That lineup, analysts said, could tilt the conversation more toward a potential peace initiative than to additional steps to pressure Iran. Mr. Netanyahu’s right-wing coalition is deeply hostile to new peace negotiations with the Palestinians.
“The one issue Bibi has no room for maneuver on — the peace process — is the one issue Trump wants to talk about,” Martin S. Indyk, a special envoy for Middle East peace during the Obama administration, said, using Mr. Netanyahu’s nickname. “On the one issue that Bibi wants to talk about, Iran, he’s missing his wingman, General Flynn. His wingman has just been shot down.”
Other analysts, however, said the upheaval in the White House would lower expectations for Mr. Netanyahu.
“On the White House side, they’re going to be very distracted,” said Scott B. Lasensky, who was an adviser to the Obama administration’s ambassador to Israel, Daniel Shapiro. “On the prime minister’s side, he wants to project an image of smooth sailing. He wants the same thing every Israeli prime minister wants — a picture of him in the Oval Office on the front page of every Israeli newspaper.”
After Mr. Trump’s election, the complicated politics of the American Jewish electorate will pose a challenge to Mr. Netanyahu as well. But at least as far as the White House is concerned, some analysts said, he might be able to take advantage of the chaos.
“With the administration in flux,” said David Makovsky, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, “you have a better chance of influencing policy before it gets set in stone.”