Netanyahu in Washington with Golan Heights recognition on tap





Washington (AFP) - Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrived in Washington on Sunday, looking for an electoral boost from Donald Trump amid expectations the US president will formally recognize Israel's sovereignty over the Golan Heights.

Trump broke longstanding international consensus last week over the status of the Golan Heights, which Israel seized from Syria in the 1967 Six Day War, saying the US should recognize Israeli sovereignty over the strategic plateau.

Israel's foreign minister said the US president will go one step further on Monday when he welcomes a grateful Netanyahu to the White House.

"President Trump will sign tomorrow in the presence of PM Netanyahu an order recognizing Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights," Israel Katz tweeted.

Netanyahu has long pushed for such recognition, and many analysts saw Trump's statement, which came in a tweet on Thursday, as a campaign gift ahead of Israel's April 9 polls.

He picked up another on Sunday, when Romania's Prime Minister Viorica Dancila said her government would move their embassy to Jerusalem, breaking with the European position and apparently with her own president as well.

Netanyahu is locked in a tough election fight with a centrist political alliance headed by former military chief Benny Gantz and ex-finance minister Yair Lapid.

New opinion polls last week showed Netanyahu losing ground to his electoral rivals, and the Washington visit was seen as an opportunity to regain momentum.

The prime minister has a "working meeting" at the White House on Monday and a dinner on Tuesday.

Also Tuesday, he is set to address the annual conference in Washington of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). Gantz speaks at the high-profile event on Monday.

- 'Purim miracle' -

The Golan Heights decision is the latest major move in favor of Israel by Trump, who in 2017 recognized the disputed city of Jerusalem as the country's capital.

Syria and other states in the region condemned Trump's pledge, saying it violates international law. France said the same.

Israel annexed the Golan Heights in 1981 in a move never recognized by the international community.

Netanyahu phoned Trump to tell him he had made "history," and called the gesture a "Purim miracle," a reference to the Jewish holiday that Israel was celebrating that day.

Although Trump professed no knowledge of the Israeli politics in play, Netanyahu's relationship with the US president has long been a central feature of his campaign.

Trump appears on giant campaign billboards in Israel shaking hands and smiling with Netanyahu, and the premier has shared video of the US leader calling him "strong" and a "winner."

On the same day as Trump's Golan Heights tweet, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was in Jerusalem, where he joined Netanyahu in a visit to the historic Western Wall, offering his host a prime pre-election photo opportunity.

It was the first time such a high-ranking American official had visited one of the holiest sites in Judaism, located in mainly Palestinian east Jerusalem, with an Israeli premier.

Trump relies on pro-Israel evangelical Christians as part of his electoral base and has moved US policy firmly in Israel's favor.

- 'Personal things' -

But Netanyahu has also deployed his considerable powers of persuasion to charm the mercurial president he calls his "friend."

"Trump is very affected by personal things, and Bibi's stroked him a lot," said Jonathan Rynhold, a political science professor at Israel's Bar-Ilan University, using Netanyahu's nickname.

"I'm sure he's also very affected by the last thing that was said to him, so whispering in his ear is (Trump's son-in-law Jared) Kushner, who's got a good relationship with Bibi."

There has been talk in recent weeks about similarities in style between Trump and Netanyahu -- although there are key differences.

Michael Oren, a former Israeli ambassador to the United States and now a deputy minister for diplomacy, said "they share a disdain for political correctness."

Using phrases that echo Trump's, Netanyahu has castigated the corruption investigations into his affairs as a "witch hunt" and a plot aimed at forcing him from office.

He has sought to demonize his enemies and brokered a deal with an extreme-right political party many view as racist.

Like Trump, he has employed the phrase "fake news" to combat tough coverage of him.

But, as Rynhold points out, underneath the rhetoric the 69-year-old Netanyahu is an "extremely cautious politician," intensely attuned to the direction of the electoral winds.

He has been prime minister for a total of 13 years and will be on track to surpass founding father David Ben-Gurion as Israel's longest-serving premier if he wins next month.

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