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Netanyahu Heads to U.S. Seeking to Reset Ties After Obama Years

The Obama years sprang some unwanted surprises on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu -- like secret nuclear talks with Iran.

This week, in his first White House visit with President Donald Trump, Netanyahu’s priority will be to make sure Israel is kept in the loop and that the two countries’ positions are generally aligned, according to Michael Oren, Israel’s ambassador to the U.S. for much of Barack Obama’s term.

“The overriding goal will be to restore the relationship so that there are no surprises and no daylight,” said Oren, now a deputy minister in the prime minister’s office. “He’ll want to restore the alliance and make sure the U.S. is, above all, standing by Israel and working together with Israel to fight common threats.”

Netanyahu is trying to recalibrate ties with Israel’s top ally after eight years of high-profile clashes with Obama. He sees a chance for a warmer relationship with Trump, who shares his alarm over the Iran nuclear deal and Islamist extremists. Sunday evening, after a Cabinet discussion about the trip, the prime minister’s office said by text that the two leaders would discuss Iran, Syria and the Palestinians, and relations with the new administration.

“All the ministers agreed on the great importance of tightening the relations with the United States,” Netanyahu’s office said in the statement, “both on the governmental level and the personal level.”

Chemistry Lesson

Trump, in an interview published Sunday in the Israel Hayom newspaper, called the prime minister “a good man” and said the two have “always had good chemistry.”

But there could be some hiccups. The White House has sent mixed messages on Israeli settlements -- saying existing ones are not an obstacle to peace but new ones are unhelpful -- and seems in no hurry to fulfill a campaign pledge to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv, a measure likely to anger Palestinians and Muslims elsewhere.

Trump himself sharpened that theme with Israel Hayom, telling the paper -- bankrolled by Netanyahu’s billionaire supporter Sheldon Adelson -- he’s “not somebody that believes that going forward with these settlements is a good thing for peace.” He said he was “studying” the proposed embassy move, and “we will see what happens.”

Netanyahu is facing pressure from the settlement movement and his chief political rival, Education Minister Naftali Bennett of the Jewish Home party, to push for more construction, annex parts of the West Bank and disavow his commitment to Palestinian statehood.  On Sunday the prime minister acknowledged the “great excitement” the visit had caused among settlement supporters, but also said it wasn’t realistic to think Israel would be able to build without limits and that it was important not to provoke the new administration, Channel 2 television reported.

More likely, according to a senior official close to the prime minister, is that Netanyahu will outline for Trump his vision of a demilitarized Palestinian state with land swaps, and give the new president time to form a coherent policy on the issue. The official spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss confidential conversations.

Valued Ally

Netanyahu “will probably try to tell Trump that Israel won’t surprise him,” said Joshua Teitelbaum of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies outside Tel Aviv. “It’s all about coordinating and reducing unnecessary surprises.”

Even if Trump and Netanyahu don’t agree on everything, the simple optics of improved relations can be important. By showing Israel is a valued ally, the U.S. gives the Jewish state leverage with its neighbors, said Israel Katz, who serves as intelligence minister in Netanyahu’s cabinet.

“Countries in the region understand we are an agent that they need to be close to the U.S.” Katz said in an interview in Tel Aviv. “We are seeing several examples of this already happening, with Israel acting as a go-between with countries in the region and the U.S.”

In December, Israel enlisted Trump to try to quash a United Nations Security Council resolution condemning Israeli settlements. While Egypt pulled the initial draft, other countries sponsored it and it passed after the Obama administration rejected Trump’s call to veto the measure.

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Last week’s trip to London offered a snapshot of Netanyahu’s priorities. After meeting with U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May, whose support he sought for new sanctions against Iran, Netanyahu was asked by reporters whether the settlement construction Israel has announced since Trump’s Jan. 20 inauguration -- more than 6,000 units in the West Bank and East Jerusalem -- had been coordinated with Trump. The prime minister said the White House had been briefed.

“We do not surprise our friends,” he said. “We keep them updated.”

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