By Jeffrey Heller
JERUSALEM (Reuters) – With Israel’s election just two weeks away, Benjamin Netanyahu will get to showcase his close ties with Donald Trump in a U.S. visit just days after the president backed Israel’s hold over the occupied Golan Heights.
The prime minister’s White House meeting with Trump on Monday could be overshadowed in the United States by the expected release of a confidential report into a probe of Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. election.
But Netanyahu, facing possible indictment in three corruption cases and denying any wrongdoing, will play to a domestic audience in highlighting what he hails as the strongest bond ever between an Israeli leader and an American president.
Before returning on Thursday from the long-planned trip to the home stretch of a close race, Netanyahu can expect a warm reception from Trump, who along with the First Lady, will also host a dinner for Netanyahu and his wife, Sara.
Trump helped set the scene for his ally on Thursday, announcing the time had come to recognise Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, strategic territory that Israel seized from Syria in the 1967 Middle East war.
The president’s move was widely seen in Israel – where Trump is a popular figure – as an attempt to provide an election boost to the right-wing Netanyahu, who had pressed for yet another departure from long-standing U.S. policy in one of the world’s most volatile regions.
Trump had already fulfilled two major items on Netanyahu’s wish list, recognising contested Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in 2017 and moving the American embassy to the holy city from Tel Aviv last May.
Those steps angered Palestinians, who want East Jerusalem, also captured by Israel in 1967, as the capital of a state in the occupied West Bank and Gaza. It also set them firmly against a peace plan Washington says it will present after the Israeli ballot.
“We have never had such a bond between the prime minister of Israel and an American president,” Netanyahu, who has featured Trump on his campaign billboards, told reporters upon his departure from Tel Aviv.
For Trump, Netanyahu’s embrace resonates with U.S. evangelists, a core constituency for the Republican leader who is up for re-election in 2020.
Before arriving in Washington on Sunday, Netanyahu said he would speak to Trump “about his historic declaration” on the Golan and “continued pressure on Iran” following the U.S. withdrawal from the 2015 nuclear deal between world powers and Tehran that had relaxed sanctions on Israel’s arch-foe.
Netanyahu will also address the pro-Israel lobbying group, AIPAC, at its annual convention in Washington, as will his main challenger in the election, former military chief Benny Gantz who heads a centrist party.
The prime minister said he will meet leaders of Congress during the visit. Netanyahu’s relations with Democrats have been strained by his unflinching support for Trump, friction with the Democratic party’s progressive wing and his thorny relationship with Barack Obama.
Opinions polls show Netanyahu running neck and neck with Gantz. The political newcomer has called for clean governance, building on the attorney-general’s announcement in February that he intends to indict Netanyahu on bribery and fraud charges, pending a hearing after the April 9 vote.
“(Trump’s statement about the Golan) will really help Netanyahu,” said Billha Ketter, 67, an event planner, speaking to Reuters in Rosh Pina, which abuts the Golan Heights. She accused the president of intervening in Israel’s election.
Opinion polls gauging whether Trump’s move is having an effect are expected later in the week.
(Additional reporting by Rami Ayyub in Rosh Pina, Israel; Editing by Maayan Lubell/Keith Weir)