TEL AVIV, Israel — Looking to escape his legal and political woes at home, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu headed Wednesday toward a warmer embrace in Portugal for a meeting with like-minded ally U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
As Netanyahu departed, he told reporters that Israeli concerns about archenemy Iran would top his agenda.
Netanyahu has welcomed crippling U.S. sanctions on Iran. With Iran violently cracking down on demonstrations at home, and Iranian-allied governments in Iraq and Lebanon also dealing with mass protests, Netanyahu said now was the time for other countries to step up the pressure as well.
“We’re seeing the Iranian empire totter. We see demonstrations in Tehran, demonstrations in Baghdad, demonstrations in Beirut,” he said. “It’s important to increase this pressure against Iranian aggression.”
He also repeated his criticism of European nations that have joined a system meant to allow them to skirt the sanctions and do some business with Iran in hopes of preserving a collapsing the 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and the international community.
“They should be ashamed of themselves,” he said. “While people are risking their lives and dying on the streets of Tehran, they are giving sustenance and support to this tyrannical regime.”
Netanyahu’s visit with Pompeo will be their first since the secretary of state announced a new American doctrine last month that does not consider Israeli settlements a violation of international law, the latest in a string of diplomatic gifts to Netanyahu by the Trump administration.
The Trump administration has delivered a number of landmark victories to Netanyahu, recognizing contested Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and recognizing Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights, which was captured from Syria in 1967.
At the same time, the U.S. has cut hundreds of millions of dollars of aid to the Palestinians while shuttering the Palestinian diplomatic mission in Washington. The Palestinians have severed most ties with the U.S. and pre-emptively rejected a peace plan the Trump administration says it has prepared. It has not said when it will release the plan.
Netanyahu has repeatedly said that Israel must take advantage of its relationship with the friendly White House before the U.S. gets bogged down in election season.
Netanyahu said he would discuss his proposal to annex the Jordan Valley, a strategic part of the West Bank. Such a move would draw widespread condemnations from the Palestinians and much of the world and almost certainly extinguish any remaining Palestinian hopes of gaining independence.
The Palestinians seek all of the West Bank, captured by Israel in 1967, as the heartland of their hoped-for state.
He also said he would discuss a proposed joint defense treaty with the Americans.
With Israel barreling toward its third election in under 12 months, such grand diplomatic plans appear to be on hold. But the meeting will give Netanyahu a boost as he fights for political survival in the wake of two inconclusive elections and a damning corruption indictment.
Neither Netanyahu nor his main rival, former military chief Benny Gantz, has been able to secure a parliamentary majority since September elections. If they cannot find a way out of the crisis by Dec. 11, new elections would be triggered.
Most observers believe a unity government between their parties, which together control a majority of seats in parliament, is the best way out of the crisis. But Gantz and his partners have ruled out a power-sharing rotation with a prime minister indicted of serious crimes.
Netanyahu and Gantz met Tuesday in a last-gasp effort, but the meeting ended without an agreement.
Netanyahu and Pompeo may also talk about an Israeli initiative to formalize already warming ties with Gulf states, who consider Iran a common enemy, by signing non-belligerency agreements.
Last month, Israeli Foreign Minister Yisrael Katz said he was promoting such pacts with the “full support” of the prime minister and the U.S. There has been no indication that the Gulf states would be on board, or even whether it has been formally proposed to them.
The high-profile meeting on European soil offers Netanyahu a respite from his troubles at home.
Israel’s attorney general last month indicted Netanyahu of fraud, breach of trust and accepting bribes in three separate cases.
It is the first time in Israeli history that a sitting prime minister has been charged with a crime. Unlike mayors or regular ministers, the prime minister is not required by Israeli law to resign if indicted and Netanyahu is steadfastly vowing to remain in office where he is best positioned to fight the charges.
But without a parliamentary majority and the first signs of a rebellion brewing within his own ruling Likud party, he is amid the most uncertain chapter of his lengthy career.
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