WASHINGTON — As tensions rose between Israel and the Obama administration over Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s early March visit to Washington to address Congress and AIPAC, and President Barack Obama’s refusal to meet with him, the White House tossed out a justification Thursday for its apparent snub. The president, the White House said, was not boycotting the prime minister because he had set up the Congressional address behind the White House’s back, but because “as a matter of long-standing practice and principle, we do not see heads of state or candidates in close proximity to their elections, so as to avoid the appearance of influencing a democratic election in a foreign country.”
White House spokeswoman Bernadette Meehan’s statement is correct as regards Obama, not so as regards all previous administrations.
A check of over 50 meetings with world leaders at the White House during the Obama administration reveals that none of those meetings was conducted two weeks before any of the visitors’ elections. The closest such session was a 2009 meeting with Chancellor Angela Merkel, who sat with Obama in Washington just over two months before German federal elections, which she won. French president Nicolas Sarkozy spoke with Obama in 2012 less than a month before his defeat by the Socialist Francois Hollande, but that was a video teleconference, not a face-to-face at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.
Further back, however, there is a precedent for election-proximate White House meetings, it involves Israel, and Netanyahu was the intended victim.
Shimon Peres, fighting a close campaign against challenger Netanyahu, visited the Clinton White House on April 30, just less than a month ahead of the May 29 elections
In 1996, prime minister Shimon Peres, fighting a close campaign against challenger Netanyahu, visited the Clinton White House on April 30, just less than a month ahead of the May 29 elections.
Peres’s substantial lead, in the aftermath of the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, was crumbling due to a series of suicide bombings in early spring. In town for the AIPAC annual conference, as Netanyahu will be, Peres met with Clinton in ostensible preparation for additional work on peace agreements with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. In the wake of the March 1996 bombing spree that killed 62 Israelis, Peres and Clinton signed an anti-terrorism agreement at a ceremony – one of three separate meetings that Peres held with Clinton that week amid myriad photo-ops.
Despite Clinton’s attempts to shore-up Peres’s claim that he could offer Israelis security as well as peace, Netanyahu – who ran promising exactly that – narrowly defeated Peres. Still, Clinton’s first move after the elections was to reach out to Netanyahu and invite him to the White House.
A previous US president had also helped Labor, in the previous election year, 1992. Likud prime minister Yitzhak Shamir was forced to defend himself domestically against allegations that he had damaged US-Israel ties through intransigence, particularly over his administration’s settlement policy. The George HW Bush administration – and particularly secretary of state James Baker – delayed providing Israel with vital loan guarantees, with Baker placing conditions on the financial support that Shamir could not accept without alienating his right-wing base. When Labor’s Yitzhak Rabin defeated Shamir, the loan guarantees showed up within two months.
“Baker’s intention was clear: He would not give Shamir the loan guarantees if it would help him politically in what was to become an election battle that year with Rabin,” wrote Aaron David Miller, a distinguished scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, in a December 2014 column in The Daily Beast.
Shamir, like Netanyahu, had a history of tense stand-offs with the White House. In October 1989, Shamir announced a “private” visit to Washington, but was hoping for an audience at the White House to discuss his ideas for a peace plan with the Palestinians. The Bush administration had presented its own proposal in March, and Shamir was still reticent.
By late October, the White House refused to say whether or not Shamir would score a top-level meeting. When asked about the possibility, Baker laconically replied that “I’m not familiar with what the President’s schedule is three to four weeks in advance.”
Shamir’s trip would have marked the first time that an Israeli prime minister came to Washington without receiving a White House invite, but the crisis was avoided two weeks before the visit when Shamir’s cabinet voted to accept the Baker plan. Three days after the cabinet vote – and two days after Bush said that he wasn’t even sure Shamir was coming to Washington – the White House finally extended an invitation and the two met.
The tools of diplomacy
Elegantly scripted White House snubs are a US diplomatic tool. American presidents understand the value of even a White House photo-op for certain domestic audiences in politicians’ home countries, and so every aspect of a top-level visit is an opportunity to wield diplomatic leverage through the elaborate dance of protocol.
It would take a sensitive observer, for instance, to notice that in a November 2012 visit to Asia, Obama posted 41 pictures to his website from the trip. There is a four-minute video of Obama’s meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda, and in the still frames, Obama is seen with the king and prime minister of Thailand and with Myanmar pro-democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi. Cambodian prime minister Hun Sen is absent from the pictures, after tensions rose between the two countries over Cambodia’s human rights record.
Not-meetings are also powerful fodder for the White House. In a series of awkward leaks, it was revealed that former UK prime minister Gordon Brown made not one but five requests to meet with Obama during a fall visit in 2009. Brown’s office requested a bilateral meeting on the sidelines of the UN or at the G20 summit in Pittsburgh, but came up empty-handed.
Ties between the White House and 10 Downing Street were rocky that fall, after the Scottish government decided to release a convicted terrorist. But rumors of Washington snubs had begun earlier that year when Obama was reportedly “too tired” to greet Brown during a visit.
The perceived snubs continued through scaled-down press availabilities, reaching a low of ignominy when Obama gave Brown a DVD set of American movies that could not even be played in a non-US DVD player. At the time, the UK’s Telegraph described Obama’s present as one that “looked like the kind of thing the White House might hand out to the visiting head of a minor African state.”
In stark contrast, Brown had thoughtfully presented Obama with a pen holder made from the timbers of a warship used to hunt down slave traders in the 19th Century. Obama’s desk in the Oval Office was made from the timbers of that ship’s sister ship.
Another snub occurred – though possibly unintentionally – when Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper was, like Brown, greeted in 2009 by Obama’s acting protocol officer rather than by the president himself. Canada was perplexed as to what it had done to engender such a reaction.
The cause for a carefully choreographed snub was clear for Spanish prime minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, who angered president George W. Bush by pulling Spanish troops from the joint mission in Iraq. In 2004, Bush invited Zapatero’s predecessor, Jose Maria Aznar, to the White House but did not even return a phone call that Zapatero made to congratulate Bush on his re-election.
White House snubs also have gone the other way In 2012, the White House had to work to mask its disappointment that Russian President Vladimir Putin blew off the G8 summit at Camp David, sending instead Russia’s second-best, Prime Minister Dimitri Medvedev. Using the elections card in reverse, the White House reiterated Putin’s excuse – that he had to stay in Moscow to finish setting up his new government after elections.
Washington snubs are not rare, but they are meant to deliver a ringing message back to the host country. Netanyahu, at odds with Obama over Iran, settlements and aspects of the Palestinian conflict, is evidently not inclined to heed it.
Israeli officials were quoted Friday night saying the prime minister felt he had to come to the US and speak to Congress on Iran because the matter was so critical and the president appeared worryingly ready to compromise with Tehran. US officials, for their part, were quoted saying it would be “hard to trust” Netanyahu in the future.
The art of diplomacy would appear to be spinning off into something rather less subtle.