Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told US Secretary of State John Kerry to hold off from visiting Israel earlier this year because the Israeli leader was busy trying to form a coalition, Channel 2 reported on Sunday.
Shortly after the March 17 elections, Kerry requested to convene with Netanyahu on regional affairs, including peace negotiations with the Palestinians that have been stalled since 2014.
But Netanyahu indicated to Kerry that the timing was not right and he preferred to delay the meeting until after he had hammered out a new coalition, a task he has yet to complete.
There was no immediate confirmation from American officials.
But speaking to Channel 10 in an interview aired Sunday night, Kerry said he hoped to visit Israel in the coming weeks, and indicated that he had planned to come earlier. “I look forward to traveling there and visiting,” he said. “It was going to happen sooner; it may happen now in the next weeks when they get a government.”
Netanyahu has yet to form a new government, a task he has only until Thursday to complete.
Netanyahu’s rebuffing of Kerry came amid a nadir in ties between Washington and Jerusalem over disagreements on how to tackle Iran’s nuclear program, and US frustration with the lack of progress on peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.
US-brokered peace talks stalled last year after a nine-month effort when Abbas agreed to sign a unity pact with Gaza-based terrorist group Hamas, and amid a dispute over prisoner releases and settlements.
In the Channel 10 interview, Kerry said he hoped Netanyahu was committed to a two-state solution, and praised the work the prime minister had put in to reach an agreement.
“The key now,” said Kerry, was to put Netanyahu’s commitment to the two-state solution “to the test.” The prime minister needed “to quickly show the world that indeed what he has said [about supporting the two-state solution] is a policy that is being put into day-to-day practice.”
Kerry’s comments were milder than past administration criticisms of the prime minister over pre-election statements he made seemingly taking Palestinian statehood off the table, statements he later walked back.
Netanyahu has continued to lobby against a US-backed framework agreement between Iran and world powers over Tehran’s nuclear program reached at the beginning of April.
On Sunday the prime minister met with US Senator Rob Portman (R-OH), who chairs the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs.
Netanyahu noted that Israel and the US remained deeply divided over the nuclear deal.
Netanyahu has urged that it doesn’t go far enough in preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons and too quickly eases economic sanctions imposed on Iran to force it into reaching an agreement.
“On the matter of the pending Iran deal, we view things differently,” Netanyahu said. “We think that the goal of the Iran deal should not be just to reach any deal. It should be to block Iran’s path to the bomb. And to block Iran’s path to the bomb, we need a deal that prevents Iran from having what is given to it in Lausanne.”
Netanyahu pointed out that the framework agreement leaves Iran with “a vast nuclear infrastructure that is not needed for civilian nuclear energy” enabling Tehran to produce fuel for “dozens” of nuclear bombs with almost no breakout time — the period need to convert enriched uranium into a working bomb.
“And it also fills Iran’s coffers in a very short time with tens of billions of dollars to fuel its aggression and its terrorism,” he added. “There are those who tell us that this will not endanger Israel. I have to tell you as the Prime Minister of Israel responsible for Israel’s security, it endangers Israel, it endangers the region, it endangers the world, the entire world in my opinion. So I think it’s very important to insist on a better deal.”
Israeli officials led by Netanyahu have demanded that the nuclear deal between the US, Britain, France, Russia, China, and Germany — known as the P5+1 — and Iran dismantle the Iranian enrichment capabilities.
The current agreement, that is to be finalized by a June 30 deadline would allow Iran to keep thousands of its uranium enrichment centrifuges working.
US President Barack Obama and Kerry insist that a stringent inspection regime of all Iran’s nuclear facilities will be enough to prevent development of a bomb for years to come and that sanctions will be lifted only when Iran implements the terms of the final deal.