White House downplays latest Netanyahu spat as ‘scheduling challenge’

White House downplays latest Netanyahu spat as ‘scheduling challenge’

It would have been 'good manners' for PM to have given the president advance word he was canceling his trip, says spokesman, but it wasn't 'a snub'

Rebecca Shimoni Stoil is the Times of Israel's Washington correspondent.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with US President Barack Obama in the White House on November 9, 2015 (Raphael Ahren/Times of Israel)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with US President Barack Obama in the White House on November 9, 2015 (Raphael Ahren/Times of Israel)

WASHINGTON — Describing the latest spat between Israel and the United States as a “scheduling challenge,” a senior White House official on Tuesday downplayed the significance of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s abrupt cancellation of a planned meeting with President Barack Obama.

Press Secretary Josh Earnest described the current dust-up as less serious than the acrimony one year ago, when Obama refused to meet with Netanyahu during his March 2015 visit to Washington, during which he addressed a joint session of Congress and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s annual policy conference.

“We would have preferred to have heard about this in person before reading about that in the media reports, but it certainly does not have any impact on our ability, either as an administration or as a country, to continue to strengthen the national security cooperation that we enjoy with the Israelis,” Earnest stressed. He argued that “there is no reason to consider this a snub” but rather “the question is simply a matter of scheduling.”

Referring to the latest tension between the notoriously rancorous leaders as a “scheduling challenge,” Earnest said that it was “on a far different scale” than the open hostility over Netanyahu’s March 2015 speech before Congress.

White House Spokesman Josh Earnest speaking to reporters, October 7, 2015. (screen capture: White House video)
White House Spokesman Josh Earnest. (screen capture: White House video)

“For a number of weeks, the White House and Prime Minister Netanyahu’s office had been in touch about arranging an opportunity for Prime Minister Netanyahu to meet with President Obama while he was in the United States to attend the AIPAC conference. They initially sought a meeting on or around the 17th or 18th of March,” Earnest said. “We confirmed for them that March 18th would work for President Obama and awaited their confirmation that they would be in a position to accept a meeting. We learned from media reports yesterday that that date did not work for them.”

On Monday, the White House had indicated “surprise” when it became clear that Netanyahu was canceling his trip to DC and so would not meet with the president.

Following Israeli media reports that claimed the White House had failed to schedule a meeting, the Prime Minister’s Office issued a statement Monday thanking Obama for offering to meet with the prime minister, but saying that Netanyahu decided against making the trip.

Earnest stressed that although it would have been “good manners” for the PMO to notify the White House in advance of the media reports that Netanyahu would not be attending, the latest dust-up between the two administrations would not have any impact on US-Israel security relations, including on Vice President Joe Biden’s current trip to Israel or on talks over the renewal of the 10-year defense aid agreement known as the Memorandum of Understanding.

“These kind of interactions when we have encountered questions about the relationship between our two countries in the past, we have gone to great lengths not just to say but to demonstrate that the commitment on the part of the United States to Israel’s security is unshakeable and that continues to be the case,” he added.

Aaron David Miller, a scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center and former Middle East Peace negotiator who served under six secretaries of state, said the episode underlined the built-up distrust between Washington and Jerusalem over the years, and the prime minister’s desire to avoid the possibility of a less-than-stellar meeting.

Aaron David Miller (photo credit: Courtesy)
Aaron David Miller (photo credit: Courtesy)

“I think the proximate causes are less important than the underlying issue, which is that if you were the prime minister of Israel looking at whether no visit would be better than a bad visit from your perspective, you would basically conclude that there is really very little point in coming,” he told The Times of Israel.

“You have the MOU negotiations, which are not going well. You’ve got bad feeling left over from the Iran agreement. You have an Israeli-Palestinian issue at a fundamental impasse. I’m not sure what the upside is in a visit right now from Netanyahu’s point of view.”

Netanyahu’s canceling the meeting, Miller suggested, was less problematic than his first making public the desire to have a meeting and then changing his mind. “You end up aggravating an already difficult situation by wanting a visit, then not wanting one, and then publicly trying to explain why you’re not coming.”

Earnest’s comments on Tuesday came amid indications that talks over the aid package have hit an impasse. Earnest stressed that Biden was not going to bring any new offers during his Wednesday meeting with Netanyahu.

Biden made vague comments in Tel Aviv Tuesday about hoping to “make some progress” that were quickly interpreted in some quarters as hinting at an increase in the amount offered in the “Memorandum of Understanding”, a long-term defense aid package that is periodically renewed. But the White House scrambled to emphasize that his remarks were not to be taken as any such indication.

“I will be clear about one thing – that Vice President Biden does not intend, and is not carrying with him the next offer in the negotiation over the Memorandum of Understanding about the United States providing military support to Israel. There is a separate channel through which those negotiations continue to take place,” Earnest said.

Speaking with former president Shimon Peres at the Peres Center for Peace in Jaffa, Biden promised the former president that “we have absolute and total, unvarnished commitment to the society of Israel and we hope to make some progress.”

US Vice President Joe Biden meets with former president Shimon Peres in Jaffa on March 8, 2016 (Peres center)
US Vice President Joe Biden meets with former president Shimon Peres in Jaffa on March 8, 2016 (Peres center)

The latter part of the comment was seen by some as referring to the 10-year package, which Obama offered to renew in 2013 even though it technically would only expire in the next administration. The package will be a subject of talks between Biden and Netanyahu Wednesday.

White House officials emphasized that Biden’s comments about making progress were not related to the MOU, but more generally about continuing to further deepen the bond and relationship between the US and Israel.

“The work to complete the Memorandum of Understanding is still ongoing but those negotiations have been taking place for a number of months without incident,” said Earnest.

Eric Cortellessa contributed to this report.

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