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Obama, Kerry won’t meet Netanyahu during Washington visit

After cold response to news of Congress address, White House cites principle of not meeting with world leaders before elections

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, meets with US president Barack Obama, at the White House, Washington DC on October 01, 2014. (Avi Ohayon/GPO)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, meets with US president Barack Obama, at the White House, Washington DC on October 01, 2014. (Avi Ohayon/GPO)

US President Barack Obama will not meet with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu when he travels to Washington in early March.

Spokeswoman Bernadette Meehan said Thursday that in keeping with “long-standing practice and principle,” the president does not meet with heads of state or candidates in close proximity to their elections. Israel is scheduled to hold elections on March 17.

The State Department said later Thursday that Secretary of State John Kerry would also not meet with Netanyahu during the trip.

Netanyahu will be in Washington in part for a March 3 address to a joint session of Congress. House Speaker John Boehner invited Netanyahu to speak to Congress without consulting the Obama administration.

Rep. Nancy Pelosi, leader of the House Democrats, said that Boehner blundered when he invited Netanyahu to address the Congress amid sensitive negotiations about Iran’s nuclear program and in the shadow of Israel’s elections.

“If that’s the purpose of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s visit two weeks before his own election, right in the midst of our negotiations, I just don’t think it’s appropriate and helpful,” Pelosi told reporters Thursday at her weekly news conference. The speech, Pelosi suggested, could give Netanyahu a political boost in elections a few weeks later and inflame international talks aimed at stopping Iran’s nuclear program.

“These negotiations have gone on for a long time,” Pelosi added. “They’re delicate.”

Netanyahu confirmed Thursday that he would address Congress in early March. He was initially slated to speak on February 11, but changed the date so he could attend the AIPAC conference.

“The Prime Minister is expected to arrive in the US at the beginning of March and will also participate in the AIPAC conference,” read a statement from the PMO. “The speech in front of both houses of Congress will give the prime minister the opportunity to thank President Barack Obama, Congress, and the American people for their support of Israel.”

“I look forward to the opportunity to express before the joint session Israel’s vision for a joint effort to deal with [Islamist terrorism and Iran’s nuclear program], and to emphasize Israel’s commitment to the special bond between our two democracies,” Netanyahu said, according to the statement.

“I am touched by the invitation to appear for the third time in front of both houses of the US Congress,” he said. “We are approaching the moment of decision on the Iranian nuclear issue. I have fought for years against Iran’s attempts to achieve a nuclear weapon, and it is very important that Israel’s message be heard. This is a grand gesture to the State of Israel and to our common struggle along alongside all civilized people.”

The visit has been surrounded in controversy almost from the moment it was announced.

The White House initially reacted icily to Netanyahu’s plans to address Congress, an appearance apparently meant to bolster opposition to a nuclear deal with Iran as it is currently shaping up, as well as opposition to new sanctions against Tehran.

White House spokesman Josh Earnest suggested Wednesday that Netanyahu and Boehner had broken with protocol in not informing Obama of the prime minister’s travel plans.

“We haven’t heard from the Israelis directly about the trip at all,” he said, adding the White House would “reserve judgment” about any possible face-to-face meeting until explanations are made.

“The typical protocol would suggest that the leader of a country would contact the leader of another country when he is traveling there. That is certainly how President Obama’s trips are planned,” said Earnest.

“So this particular event seems to be a departure from that protocol.”

Speaking several hours after Earnest, top US diplomat Kerry said Netanyahu was welcome to give a speech at “any time” in the United States. But Kerry agreed it had been a “little unusual” to hear about the Israeli leader’s speech to US Congress next month from the office of Boehner and not via the usual diplomatic channels.

Israel and the United States are close allies, but personal relations between Obama and Netanyahu are said to be cool.

White House press secretary Josh Earnest, August 27, 2014. (photo credit: AP/Charles Dharapak)
White House press secretary Josh Earnest, August 27, 2014. (photo credit: AP/Charles Dharapak)

The pair have publicly clashed over Israeli settlement building in the West Bank and about how to tackle Iran’s disputed nuclear program.

Obama’s allies fear the trip could be used by Israel and by Republicans to rally opposition to a nuclear deal, undercutting years of sensitive negotiations just as they appear poised to bear fruit.

Washington and other global powers resumed talks with Iran last weekend in Geneva, with a view to having a framework deal in place by March.

The complex agreement would see Iran rein in its nuclear program, which the West believes is aimed at developing a bomb but which Tehran insists is for purely civilian use.

Netanyahu has addressed the US Congress twice before, in 1996 and 2011. A third speech will put him level with Winston Churchill as the most prolific world leader in history terms of the number of addresses to Congress.

Times of Israel staff and AFP contributed to this report.

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