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SALT LAKE CITY — Sen. Orrin Hatch is traveling to Israel today to meet with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as the Obama administration proposes the largest military aid package ever to another country.
But the trip comes as the two nations disagree on the terms of the deal and during continuing animosity between President Barack Obama and Netanyahu over the nuclear arms deal with Iran other policy disagreements.
Hatch is scheduled to sit down with the prime minister during the weeklong trip that includes meetings with the Israeli president, minister of education and deputy director general of foreign affairs, as well as a strategic briefing on Israel’s borders with Lebanon and Syria.
The seven-term Republican senator is expected to discuss foreign affairs, national security and terrorism, but religious liberty will be a theme throughout his stay in Israel. Hatch also intends to talk about commonalities between the Jewish faith and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, of which he is a member.
Hatch, who has visited Israel a number of times, will also take part in a Holocaust Memorial Day wreath laying ceremony, have lunch with students at the BYU Jerusalem Center for Near Eastern Studies and eat dinner with Christian Israeli soldiers and soldiers from Utah.
Hatch is traveling as president pro tempore of the Senate, which is third in the line of presidential succession.
The American Israel Education Foundation is sponsoring the trip. It is affiliated with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee or AIPAC, a powerful pro-Israel lobbying group.
Hatch last week was among 83 senators who signed an AIPAC-backed letter to Obama urging a more robust defense package for Israel, a topic likely to come up during Hatch's visits with top Israeli leaders.
Netanyahu has hinted he may wait to negotiate with Obama’s successor to try and secure a better deal. The current aid package, due to expire in 2018, stands at $3 billion annually. Israel wants as much as $5 billion a year. The Obama administration has offered $40 billion over 10 years.
"That seems to be the only hot issue," said Amos Guiora, a University of Utah law professor and expert on U.S.-Israel relations. "I don't think Orrin Hatch will be told anything he doesn't already know."
The Israeli prime minister canceled a meeting with Obama in Washington last month, citing a desire not to interfere in U.S. elections. He also waived an appearance AIPAC conference scheduled the next day but spoke to the group via satellite.
Guiora, who splits his time between Utah and Israel, said the relationship between Netanyahu and Obama is best described as "open mutual antipathy."
"I think what Netanyahu does is look at the calendar and says, "We're one day closer to Jan. 20,'" he said.
Hatch won't be working to smooth out that hostility but is among key congressional leaders who want to strengthen and burnish ties with Israel.
In March 2015, Netanyahu took the podium of the Republican-controlled U.S. House where presidents often make major addresses, contending that any nuclear deal with Iran could threaten his nation's survival. Former House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and Hatch hosted the prime minister.
Obama declined to meet with the leader of Israel during the visit. Vice President Joe Biden was away in Central America, and so Hatch filled his seat as president of the Senate, sitting behind Netanyahu as he spoke.
"Netanyahu has played the Republican congress against the Democratic president. That's been his calling card the past eight years," Guiora said.
Guiora speculated on the political purposes for Hatch's government-centric trip given the chilliness between Obama and Netanyahu as well as the upcoming U.S. presidential election.
"We in Israel read the American tea leaves all day long," he said.
Guiora wondered if Hatch is going to Israel as an emissary of Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry or GOP presidential front-runner Donald Trump or GOP presidential contender Ted Cruz, "for whatever that's worth."
"Could Hatch be coming as an emissary of Hatch?" Guiora said.
"Or is he coming as nothing more than a voice of moderation telling Bibi in essence to be quiet for the next few months and not involve himself in the American election?" he said, using Netanyahu's nickname.