Washington - Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hoped a visit among political friends in Washington would distract from scandal and investigations at home, but the potentially career-ending inquiry followed him, and clouds his White House meeting with President Trump on Monday.
Netanyahu arrived at the White House early Monday afternoon, just hours after reports from Israel said a former media adviser and confidant has turned state's witness in a far-reaching bribery case.
In what appeared to be a sign of the political importance of the session to Netanyahu, the White House changed plans Monday morning and announced that reporters and cameras would be allowed into what had been an Oval Office meeting closed to the press.
Jared Kushner, Trump's son-in-law and Mideast adviser, was expected to attend the session despite losing his top-level security clearance. Kushner is also under scrutiny for mixing his business and government interests, and faces possible legal peril in the special counsel investigation.
Kushner heads an effort to broker what Trump has called "the ultimate deal" between Israel and the Palestinians, but the plan is a back burner issue for Monday's session. It was shelved amid fierce Arab and allied opposition to Trump's decision in December to declare that the United States considers Jerusalem to be Israeli's capital.
Speaking to the press before setting off for Washington, Netanyahu told reporters that he planned to reiterate Israel's concerns over the Iranian nuclear deal and the growing prominence of Iran in Syria, as well as discuss issues related to Trump's potential Israeli-Palestinian peace plan.
He also said he planned to invite the president to Israel in May to officially open the new U.S. embassy in Jerusalem, in thanks for a decision that underscores the close bond between the two leaders.
Welcoming Netanyahu to the White House on Monday, Trump said he might make the trip. "I may. I may," he said. "We're going to have it built very quickly."
Trump said the relationship between the two countries "has never been better." He also mentioned the embassy decision in his opening remarks, saying he believes it's "much appreciated" in Israel.
Netanyahu said of Trump's decision: "This will be remembered by our people through the ages. Others talked about it. You did it."
The bond between the two men now be viewed in a different light as Netanyahu's political career, dogged by at least three criminal cases at home, seems less stable than ever.
While the country's right-wing coalition has mostly rallied around the long-serving prime minister, as the investigations progress there are signs of weakness. Additional reports Monday of a face-off between Netanyahu's coalition partners over the long-running issue of drafting ultra-Orthodox Jews into the state military seems to also suggest the possibility of snap elections.
They could come as early as June.
On Friday, Netanyahu was questioned by Israeli detectives for his role in the case involving Nir Hefetz, the man Israeli media refer to as Netanyahu's "spin doctor." Labelled case 4000 by the police, it is said to involve the granting of regulatory benefits worth millions of dollars to Israeli telecom giant Bezeq in return for positive news coverage for the Netanyahu family on the popular Walla news website.
Israeli news reports Monday said that Hefetz has agreed to turn state's witness; police declined to comment.
At the center of the case is Shaul Elovitch, Walla's owner and a majority shareholder in Bezeq, who is said to have made millions in the easing of communication regulations. Netanyahu is linked to the case because he was communications minister at that time. Shlomo Filber, the former director general of the communications ministry, recently turned state's witness in the case.
The new developments in case 4000, come weeks after police recommended indicting Netanyahu in two cases - Case 1000 and Case 2000 in police parlance. According to the police notes, Case 1000 involves gifts of cigars and jewelry amounting to more than $280,000 that the prime minister and his wife are suspected of receiving from billionaire benefactors such as Israeli-born Hollywood producer Arnon Milchan and Australian business executive James Packer.
Case 2000, police said, involved deals made between Netanyahu and Arnon Mozes, publisher of the popular Israeli daily Yedioth Ahronoth. According to information leaked to the Israeli media, the agreement apparently would have allowed the prime minister to receive more favorable coverage from the newspaper if he agreed to weaken the status of a rival daily newspaper owned by U.S. casino magnate Sheldon Adelson.
Now Israel's attorney general must now decide whether to indict him on these two cases.
In an additional case, dubbed Case 3000, involving a multibillion-dollar submarine deal with Germany, several members of Netanyahu's inner circle have been named as suspects, questioned or arrested. The case has yet been linked to Netanyahu directly.
Iran and the 2015 international nuclear pact are expected to be Netanyahu's focus during an address Tuesday to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. Vice President Pence and U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley will address the hawkish pro-Israel group Monday evening and are also expected to focus on Iran. Both are among the Trump advisers who are deeply skeptical of the agreement, which Trump has threatened to abandon in May.
On the eve of the session, Guatemala joined the United States in announcing that it will move its Israel embassy to Jerusalem. No other countries have followed suit, despite Trump's prediction to the contrary.
The Washington Post