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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu chairs the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem February 12, 2017. REUTERS/Gali Tibbon

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By Patricia Zengerle

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Benjamin Netanyahu's first Trump-era Washington visit offers a chance to repair ties to Democrats that frayed during years of chilly relations under the Obama administration, but many party members said they do not expect much improvement given the Israeli prime minister's close alignment with Republicans.

"There's a lot of mending of fences that has to happen between the Netanyahu government and a lot of Democrats who feel like he unnecessarily politicized the U.S.-Israeli relationship," Democratic Senator Chris Murphy, a Senate Foreign Relations Committee member, said in a telephone interview.

The low point came in March 2015 when Netanyahu sidestepped the White House and State Department to arrange a speech to the Republican-led Congress opposing the international nuclear deal with Iran then being negotiated by President Barack Obama.

Led by the Congressional Black Caucus, more than 55 Democratic members of the Senate and House of Representatives skipped the speech to protest what they viewed as an attack on Obama, the first African-American U.S. president.

Tensions between Netanyahu and congressional Democrats have remained despite nearly seven decades of bipartisan support for Israel in Congress, which has used its spending authority to make Israel the largest recipient of annual U.S. military aid.

After Trump took office last month, Netanyahu tweeted his applause for Trump's plan to build a wall to keep out people from Mexico, which Democrats consider an expensive and racially tinged insult to a U.S. neighbour and ally.

Many Democrats also are wary of Netanyahu's support for building new settlements on land claimed by the Palestinians, and worry about statements from some in his government opposing the possibility of a Palestinian state.

MASSIVE AID PACKAGE

Democrats faulted congressional Republicans for using Israel as a wedge issue, despite strong Democratic support for initiatives such as a $38 billion military aid package the Obama administration signed in September.

"It doesn't look good or feel right when one party says, 'Well, we're better on Israel than the other party,' or if one party is trying to work in lock-step with Israeli officials," Representative Eliot Engel, the top House Foreign Affairs Committee Democrat, told Reuters.

Israeli officials said Netanyahu's aides have been aware of the need to re-establish a semblance of bipartisan even-handedness, even as the prime minister works to create a personal bond with Trump.

Aides travelling with Netanyahu did not respond to requests for comment on Tuesday. But as he left for Washington, Netanyahu made a point of saying he would meet with congressional leaders from both parties, signalling something of a rebalancing.

"The alliance between Israel and America has always been extremely strong. It's about to get even stronger," Netanyahu told reporters.

(Additional reporting by Matt Spetalnick and Luke Baker; Editing by John Walcott and James Dalgleish)

Reuters