Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addressed an enthusiastic crowd at AIPAC in Washington on Tuesday, while facing deep political and possibly criminal problems back at home. Nick Schifrin talks with Aaron David Miller of the Wilson Center about Netanyahu’s chance of staying in power, the ongoing peace process and what this visit means for the Iranian nuclear deal.
But first, Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke today in Washington at an annual meeting of American supporters of Israel.
As Nick Schifrin reports, the enthusiastic welcome comes as Israel's prime minister faces deep political, and possibly criminal, problems back in Israel.
The prime minister of the state of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu.
(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)
Back home, Benjamin Netanyahu is surrounded by scandal. But in the warm embrace of Washington, he's hailed like a hero.
Good morning, AIPAC.
Today, Netanyahu addressed the friendliest crowd of all, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.
They gave him complete support on his main message.
We must stop Iran. We will stop Iran.
The 2015 Iran nuclear deal froze Iran's nuclear program in exchange for massive sanctions relief. Netanyahu said that relief ad emboldened Iran to spread its influence across the region, from Lebanon to Yemen.
Darkness is descending on our region. Iran is building an aggressive empire.
And Netanyahu presented himself in lockstep with President Trump.
He has made clear that he too will never accept a nuclear-armed Iran. That is the right policy. I salute President Trump on this.
Yesterday, the two saluted each other in the Oval Office.
President Donald Trump:
We have, I would say, probably the best relationships right now with Israel that we ever had.
It was a remarkable show of strategic unity and mutual admiration.
Mr. President, I have been here for nearly four decades with — talking, seeking to build the American-Israel alliance. Under your leadership, it's never been stronger.
For Netanyahu, this imagery is a welcome contrast to Israeli news coverage.
Continuing our coverage of the ongoing corruption investigations into the prime minister.
Yet another twist in the alleged corruption investigation of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
For months, the TV coverage and the protests have focused on multiple cases against Netanyahu and his wife, Sara, of corruption, bribery, and fraud.
Just yesterday, Netanyahu's former chief spokesman, Nir Hefetz, turned state's witness, the third former aide who's agreed to testify. But Netanyahu is leading Israeli polls, and he benefits by helping deliver President Trump's pro-Israeli policies, like moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem.
For the Palestinians, who want East Jerusalem as their capital, the move is unacceptable. But it boosted President Trump with his base, and he says it can help the peace process.
The biggest difficulty that anybody has had, you look over 25 years, nobody could get past, number one, Jerusalem. They couldn't get past it. We have taken it off the table.
So does taking Jerusalem off the table increase the chances of peace? And what's the future of Iran policy and Netanyahu's career?
For more on that, I'm joined by Aaron David Miller. He served Republican and Democratic administrations as a top diplomat on the Middle East. He's now vice president at the Wilson Center, a Washington think tank.
Aaron David Miller, how imperiled is Prime Minister Netanyahu, and can a trip like this to D.C. help save him?
Aaron David Miller:
You know, Netanyahu has been around for a long time. He's currently working, I think, on his 13th of his nine lives.
And anybody who next year, assuming he survives, will surpass Israel's greatest prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, as the longest-serving prime minister in Israel's history can't be counted out.
At the same time, three of his longtime confidants have turned state's witness. The level of detail that has been leaking to substantiate charges that the police have made. Police recommendations on bribery, fraud and breach of trust seem to be extremely serious.
What we're waiting for is the attorney general, Mandelblit, to decide whether or not an indictment is in order. I think it's going to be extremely difficult, based on the politics and the legalities, for the prime minister simply to go on as if it's business as usual.
At the same time, Nick, if elections were held, according to a recent poll last week, Likud would probably garner the most mandates in the Knesset. So, Netanyahu's durability is still there.
So, he's still leading the polls. And we have a situation right now where the U.S. at least says that it does want to introduce the peace plan.
Is there a plan that the Trump administration is working on that can actually be acceptable in this environment to both the Palestinians and the Israelis?
In answer to the first question, having worked on various peace processes for almost 20 years, the degree of radio silence imposed on this one is quite impressive. There have been almost no leaks, none that are authoritative.
And it suggests one of two things, that there's either something there there worth protecting, or, alternatively perhaps, nothing. It's impossible to say what's in this thing. We have heard that it's going to be detailed, that it's going to address all of the core issues.
In answer to your second question, do I believe that anything the Trump administration will lay down will be able to address these legitimate mutual needs and requirements of both sides? Absolutely not. We don't have a peace process, in large part because the gaps on Jerusalem, border, security, refugees, recognition of Israel as the nation state of the Jews, an end of conflict and claims, those six core issues, the gaps are simply not bridgeable.
It's not the Trump administration, frankly, that's the obstacle. It's the unwillingness of both Israelis and Palestinians, each for different reasons, to make the kinds of choices and decisions that are necessary in order to allow a third party, at least one that knew what it was doing, presumably, to broker an agreement.
So the answer is, yes, I think there will be plan. It may actually have some substance. But I think the odds of getting both sides to sign on are slim to none.
President Trump says that his plan the move the embassy to Jerusalem will actually improve the prospects of peace. Is he right?
He's just made an already fraught situation immensely more problematic.
He's turned a mission impossible, I would argue, at least on the Jerusalem issue, into a mission implausible. So, no. I can understand why many Israelis are happy. I can understand why it does a lot for him politically. I understand why evangelicals and the American Jewish community is excited about this move.
But the reality, when it was taken, it certainly wasn't done with foreign policy implications or the negotiations in mind.
We saw a lot of dynamics today and yesterday, Netanyahu and Trump both agreeing on Iran specifically, talking a lot about Iran. Netanyahu's speech today on most Iran well-received.
Does that put pressure on President Trump to nix the deal, the Iran nuclear deal, which he has got a deadline on in the next couple months?
The president doesn't want to go to war with Iran, despite the blusteriness of some of his rhetoric. And he clearly doesn't want to and isn't in the position to make peace with Iran.
The default position is to continue to manage, to try to find a way to stay in the Iran nuclear accord, perhaps try for an add-on agreement constraining Iran's ballistic missile technology, or try to push these sunset clauses out to make them forever clauses.
So, I think no. I think the big difference between the prime minister and the president is that Netanyahu wants a much more assertive American role against the Iranians in the region. And the Trump administration seems to me almost as risk-averse as the Obama administration in this regard, and seems to be unwilling, certainly in Syria, to risk a confrontation with the Russians or the Iranians over the future of Hezbollah or the Assad regime.
So, I suspect, in May, when it comes time for another certification, the president will decertify probably, as he did earlier in January, but he will find a way, I suspect, to at least keep most of the deal intact.
Aaron David Miller, thank you very much.
Thank you, Nick.
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