WASHINGTON – US President Donald Trump’s month-long review of US policy on Middle East peace will come to a head on Wednesday in the Oval Office, where he will host Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in person for the first time.
The meeting is a political test for Netanyahu, who arrived in Washington on Tuesday hoping to jump-start relations with a new president amenable to his politics after enduring eight fractious years of tension with his predecessor, Barack Obama.
But to the surprise of many in Israel, Trump has undergone an evolution in his first days as president from a distant observer of the historic conflict to an active participant anxious to broker peace.
Now interested in fostering a genuine diplomatic process between Israelis and Palestinians, Trump is expected to focus his conversation with Netanyahu on how to get negotiations back on track, according to his senior policy advisers.
Netanyahu landed on Monday night with his senior staff and was scheduled to have dinner with Rex Tillerson, Trump’s newly appointed secretary of state, on Tuesday night. Netanyahu will then take meetings and lunch on Wednesday at the White House before traveling to Capitol Hill for discussions with House and Senate leadership.
Speaking with reporters on Tuesday, press secretary Sean Spicer said Trump plans to emphasize his interest in reaching a “comprehensive agreement that would end the Israeli- Palestinian conflict.”
“The way forward toward that goal will also be discussed,” Spicer said.
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The two will also discuss threats to “stability in the Middle East,” including Iran’s regional activities, the spread of Islamic State and the war in Syria.
Netanyahu is hoping to secure assurances from Trump that Israel can build within the settlement blocs that it plans to retain in any final status agreement with the Palestinians.
He is also hoping that Trump will make good on the White House statement that Israeli settlement activity is not a stumbling block to peace and reject therefore the Palestinian demand that halting Jewish building over the pre-1967 lines is a precondition to the resumption of direct negotiations.
But while Trump is expected to dismiss the no-tolerance policy toward settlement activity that the Obama Administration held, it is unclear how much leeway he will give Netanyahu on the issue of continued settlement construction.
Netanyahu flew to the US amid calls by right-wing members of his government to annex part, if not all, of Area C of the West Bank, otherwise known as Judea and Samaria.
The right-wing ministers and politicians have rejected Netanyahu’s settlement block plan, claiming that what is needed is Jewish building in all of Judea and Samaria, without any distinctions.
Netanyahu did not address the complicated issues surrounding the Israeli- Palestinian conflict when he landed at Andrews Air Force Base or when he left Ben-Gurion Airport earlier in the day.
He focused instead on the global US-Israel relationship and the strong ties that he has with Trump, who he has known since the 1980s, telling reporters that he believed their Wednesday meeting would be a “positive” one. As a sign of the warm feelings between the two men, Netanyahu is staying at the presidential guest quarters, Blair House, and arrived there by motorcade immediately after landing.
He spent time there on Monday night and Tuesday in consultations with his advisers for his meeting with Trump, including Ambassador to the US Ron Dermer.
Netanyahu is hopeful that Wednesday’s meeting in the White House, the first since Trump’s inauguration, will place Israel and the US on the same page on integral issues such as Iran, Syria and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Iran and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict had been persistent sources of tension between Netanyahu and former president Barack Obama.
On Sunday, Netanyahu told the weekly government meeting that security issues were his top priority, but members of his party and the coalition’s Right flank, the Bayit Yehudi Party, have focused on the Israeli-Palestinian issue arguing that now is the right time to redefine the conflict.
Some 12 Likud ministers and parliamentarians called on him to introduce the idea of annexation into the meeting.
Right-wing politicians have also called on Netanyahu to renounce the idea of a Palestinian state and to push for US acceptance of Israel’s right to build anywhere in Area C of the West Bank, which at present is under Israeli military and civilian rule.
Netanyahu has already privately told ministers that he plans to stand by his support for a two-state solution.
On the tarmac at Ben-Gurion Airport, he suggested to reporters that if they wanted to know what his stance was on a Palestinian state, they should follow him in Washington this week.
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