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Israeli leader accepts invitation from Trump to visit US

Jerusalem: Israel’s prime minister has accepted an invitation to visit the White House next month in hopes of forging a “common vision” for the region with President Donald Trump that could include expanded settlement construction on occupied territories and a tougher policy toward Iran.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced his plans to head to Washington hours after delaying a vote on an explosive proposal to annex one of the West Bank’s largest settlements, apparently to coordinate his policy toward the Palestinians with the new administration.

The move put on hold legislation that threatens to unleash fresh violence and damage already faded hopes for Palestinian independence. It also may have marked Trump’s first presidential foray into Middle East diplomacy.

After eight years of frosty relations with President Barack Obama, Netanyahu has welcomed Trump’s election as an opportunity to strengthen ties between the two allies.

Israeli media reported that Netanyahu was gearing up plans to expand settlement construction in the occupied West Bank and east Jerusalem a policy that had been condemned by Obama.

Late yesterday, the two men held what Netanyahu’s office described as a “very warm conversation” by phone. It said they discussed the international nuclear deal with Iran, which both men have harshly criticised, and the Palestinian issue.

“The prime minister expressed his desire to work closely with President Trump to forge a common vision to advance peace and security in the region, with no daylight between the United States and Israel,” the statement said. It said a date for Netanyahu’s visit would be finalised in the coming days.

With Trump signalling a more tolerant approach toward the much-maligned settlement movement, Israel’s nationalist right now believes it has an ally in the White House, and Israeli hard-line leaders make no secret they will push for aggressive action in the occupied West Bank.

Education Minister Naftali Bennett, leader of the pro-settlement Jewish Home Party, has been pushing Netanyahu to abandon the internationally backed idea of a Palestinian state and to annex the Maaleh Adumim settlement near Jerusalem.

But after convening his Security Cabinet yesterday, Netanyahu said his Cabinet ministers, including Bennett, had decided “unanimously” to delay action on the annexation plan until he goes to Washington to meet with Trump.

In order to placate Bennett, Israeli media reports said Netanyahu had promised the ministers to clear the way for expanded settlement construction in east Jerusalem and in major West Bank settlement “blocs” that Israel hopes to keep under a future peace deal.

He was quoted as saying his “vision” is to place all settlements under Israeli sovereignty.