Netanyahu visit puts Trump’s Israel policy in spotlight

Focus on settlements and location of US embassy, while Flynn crisis fallout continues

Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu will spend four days in Washington this week. Photograph: Gali Tibbon/EPA

Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu will meet US president Donald Trump at the White House on Wednesday amid widespread expectations of a shift in US policy towards Israel by the Trump administration.

Mr Netanyahu arrived in Washington on Tuesday for a four-day visit, and dined with secretary of state Rex Tillerson on Tuesday night before holding his first face-to-face meeting with Mr Trump as US president.

After a fractious eight years in US-Israeli relations under the Obama administration, Tel Aviv is hoping for a more pro-Israeli stance from the Trump administration, despite Mr Trump appearing to row back from some of his pro-Israeli commitments such as a campaign pledge to move the US embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

With many Israelis seeing the regime change in Washington as an opportunity to advance Israeli interests, the Israeli leader was coming under pressure from some on the right to drop his support for a two-state solution to the Palestinian conflict.

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The issue of Israeli settlements is likely to loom large over Wednesday’s meeting, following Tel Aviv’s announcement of plans to build more than 6,000 new settlement homes in the occupied Palestinian territories since Mr Trump’s inauguration. Mr Trump said last week that the expansion of settlements might “not be good for peace”.

Closely involved

Jared Kushner, Mr Trump's senior policy adviser and son-in-law, who is Jewish, is expected to attend Wednesday's meeting and has been closely involved with drafting a new Israeli-Palestinian peace initiative which would involve enlisting Arab allies. Mr Kushner facilitated a meeting between Mr Trump and the Israeli leader last September.

Separately, the controversy over national security adviser Michael Flynn’s resignation late on Monday night after just 24 days in the job intensified on Tuesday.

White House press secretary Sean Spicer confirmed that Mr Trump was informed by White House counsel that Mr Flynn had misled senior officials weeks before he demanded his resignation on Monday night. This followed a Washington Post report stating that former acting attorney general Sally Yates had warned the White House in late January that Mr Flynn may have misled senior administration officials about the nature of his phone call with the ambassador and could be vulnerable to Russian blackmail.

A US law, known as the Logan Law, prohibits private citizens from engaging in diplomacy with foreign powers.

Mr Spicer said that the president, along with a small group of advisers, had been briefed by White House counsel Don McGahn on the matter on January 26th.

“We’ve been reviewing and evaluating this issue with respect to General Flynn on a daily basis for a few weeks, trying to ascertain the truth,” Mr Spicer said.

He added that the decision by Mr Trump to seek his national security adviser’s resignation was a matter of trust. “The issue pure and simple came down to a question of trust,” he said, adding that “ironically, the president has been incredibly tough on Russia”.

‘Real story’

As questions swirled over the extent of the president's knowledge of Mr Flynn's dealings with the Russian ambassador, Mr Trump said the "real story" was the leaking of the information to the media. "The real story here is why there are so many illegal leaks coming out of Washington? Will these leaks be happening as I deal on North Korea etc?" Mr Trump tweeted.

His stance appeared to be backed up by the chair of the House Intelligence Committee, Republican Devin Numes, who said he would be seeking an explanation from the FBI about the leaking of the information.

Mr Trump moved quickly on Tuesday to appoint retired lieutenant general Keith Kellogg as acting national security adviser following Mr Flynn's resignation. Mr Kellogg, who had been serving as Mr Flynn's chief of staff, is seen as a possible permanent successor to Mr Flynn, with retired general David Petraeus and former vice admiral Bob Harward also in the frame.

Suzanne Lynch

Suzanne Lynch

Suzanne Lynch, a former Irish Times journalist, was Washington correspondent and, before that, Europe correspondent