The White House on Monday expressed public surprise that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had rejected an offer to meet with the president later this month, and said it only learned Netanyahu was canceling his trip to the United States from the media.
In a sign of yet another round of tension between the Israeli and American leaderships, the administration also publicly rejected earlier Israeli reports that the White House had been unable to schedule a time for the meeting as “false.”
Netanyahu’s extraordinary decision to spurn the presidential invite came a year after Obama refused to meet with Netanyahu in Washington, citing the proximity to Israeli elections, in what was widely regarded as a sign of the strain in ties between the two leaders; Netanyahu spoke in Congress during that trip against the Iran deal, without coordinating that appearance ahead of time with the administration.
Reports had been circulating for more than a week that Netanyahu might skip the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s annual conference later this month given that Obama would be out of the country at the time.
AIPAC’s Policy Conference kicks off on Sunday, March 20, and lasts until Tuesday, March 22. Obama is embarking on a historic trip to Cuba — the first by an American president since 1928 — on March 21. After his visit in Havana, Obama will travel to Argentina, returning to the US only on March 25. Still, sources in Jerusalem said last week that efforts were underway to schedule a meeting before the president takes off for Havana.
In fact, the White House said Monday that, in response to a request from Netanyahu for a meeting during his Washington trip, it had proposed a March 18 date two weeks ago. “We were looking forward to hosting the bilateral meeting, and we were surprised to first learn via media reports that the prime minister, rather than accept our invitation, opted to cancel his visit,” White House National Security Council spokesman Ned Price said in an emailed statement.
“Reports that we were not able to accommodate the prime minister’s schedule are false,” Price added.
Earlier on Monday evening, an Israeli Channel 10 report had claimed Netanyahu’s office did offer to have the prime minister fly in on March 18 for a meeting with the president, but that no time could be found for a meet-up — an account the White House rejected as false.
Also earlier Monday, a senior Israeli official had indicated that the trip was off, but made no mention of the White House having scheduled a meeting.
“At the moment, it looks like we’re not going to Washington,” the official told The Times of Israel. “The thinking is that we’re seeing (Vice President Joe) Biden this week and the assumption is that in the discussion with Biden all the issues will come up.” Biden was making a short visit to Israel on Tuesday.
The official also cited fears that the prime minister could inadvertently become entangled in the American presidential campaign: “Also, at AIPAC, many of the presidential candidates are giving speeches and might ask for meetings with the PM. We don’t want to get involved in the US election process.”
Later Monday, the Prime Minister’s Office issued a statement saying Netanyahu would not be traveling to the US to attend the AIPAC conference, and would also miss a potential meeting with Obama. (The prime minister will instead address the AIPAC conference on March 20 via satellite.)
The statement from the PMO thanked Obama for offering to meet with the prime minister on March 18, but said that Netanyahu had decided against making the trip to the US.
Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.