Analysis'When the president invites you, you simply can’t say no,' says one baffled expert

Netanyahu’s unprecedented snub of Obama meeting defies explanation

The PM’s reasons for not going to DC don’t add up, experts say. And the way the saga played out has again injected unnecessary friction into the perennially fraught relationship with a key ally

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

US President Barack Obama listens to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during their visit to the Children's Memorial at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem, Israel, March 22, 2013. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
US President Barack Obama listens to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during their visit to the Children's Memorial at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem, Israel, March 22, 2013. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

The US-Israel relationship has had more than its fair share of squabbles, spats and public argument, especially in recent years. But the current flap over Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s decision to spurn an invitation to meet US President Barack Obama later this month is particularly striking. And peculiar.

Netanyahu’s move is unprecedented — there is no public record of an Israeli prime minister ever previously rejecting an invite to meet a president at the White House. And it is so bizarre as to leave even veteran analysts of the often-fraught bilateral relationship flabbergasted.

“I have no convincing explanation. It doesn’t make any sense to me,” said Eytan Gilboa, an expert on American-Israeli relations at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, on Tuesday. “If an American president invites you, you have to go,” he said. “Sometimes you invite yourself even when the president doesn’t want to see you. But when he invites you, you can’t say no.”

The latest saga in a relationship replete with misunderstandings, snubs and open policy differences (notably over Iran’s nuclear program and Israel’s settlement enterprise) began a few weeks ago when it emerged that Obama would be out of town when Netanyahu planned to be in Washington to address the annual conference of the pro-Israel lobby AIPAC.

Rumors that the leader of the free world had deliberately scheduled his historic visit to Cuba to coincide with the March 20-22 AIPAC conference, and thus to avoid the Israeli prime minister, were quickly and doubtless correctly dismissed as ridiculous.

For two weeks, Jerusalem never acknowledged that the White House had found a date for a meeting

For a while, Jerusalem refused to say whether Netanyahu would go ahead with the trip in any case. Then, last week, sources in Jerusalem said he might cancel if he could not see the president, but that the US was making an effort to facilitate a meeting before Obama headed to Havana.

The Prime Minister’s Office itself adamantly refused to comment — until Monday evening, when it finally sprang into action soon after Israeli news outlets reported that Netanyahu had decided to stay home because he had failed to clinch an appointment in the White House. At that point, officials in the PMO rushed to explain that the DC trip was indeed off, but not because of Obama.

Rather, they said, Netanyahu was staying at home because he wanted to avoid wading into the US elections quagmire. Several presidential candidates are expected to speak at AIPAC and would likely seek meetings with a visiting Israeli prime minister, and Netanyahu would rather avoid being placed in such potentially awkward situations, his aides explained.

In addition, they argued, the most pressing issues affecting US-Israel relations would come up in discussions with Vice President Joe Biden, who is in Jerusalem on Tuesday.

The White House then expressed public surprise at Netanyahu’s decision to “to cancel his visit… rather than accept our invitation.” National Security Council spokesman Ned Price said the administration had been “looking forward to hosting the bilateral meeting.” He also said reports in Israel that no such meeting had been scheduled were false.

And presto! Another US-Israel crisis was born.

Just to add a little further friction, this one was again unfolding during a Biden visit — just as, in 2010, the vice president’s trip was shaped and darkened by the news, as he arrived, that Israel had approved the expansion of Jerusalem’s Ramat Shlomo neighborhood, outside the pre-1967 lines, to the open fury of the administration and to Biden’s considerable and obvious discomfort.

The PMO on Tuesday purportedly tried to put out the fire. But rather than trying to explain the near-inexplicable, it chose to argue with the administration

Unlike 2010, this is not a case of Israel, whether with deliberate or bad timing, publicly advancing a policy it knows to be opposed by its most important ally. This is more about protocol and relationships, but its significance should not be underestimated: Exactly a year after Obama snubbed Netanyahu, refusing to host him in Washington — ostensibly because the president never meets politicians during their election campaigns, but in fact because Netanyahu was in DC to lobby Congress against the Iran deal — here is the Israeli leader apparently snubbing him in return.

The Americans claim that, acting on a request from Netanyahu for a meeting, far from struggling to schedule it because of the Cuba complication, they actually proposed a date for the White House tete-a-tete — March 18 — and did so two weeks ago.

The fact that a meeting had been offered, however, was never mentioned by official or unofficial Jerusalem. As far as those covering the PMO could glean, Netanyahu was waiting to make a final decision on the trip, and the central uncertainty was whether a White House meeting was going to be possible.

Then came Monday evening’s news reports that Netanyahu had decided to turn down an Obama invitation, the hurried attempt at official clarification, the White House’s publicly expressed surprise, and an understandable sense in Washington that Netanyahu was avenging last year’s cold shoulder by Obama.

The PMO on Tuesday purportedly tried to put out the fire. But rather than trying to explain the unprecedented and, frankly, near-inexplicable decision to spurn the opportunity to meet the leader of Israel’s most important ally and most powerful man in the world, it chose to argue with the administration: aides to Netanyahu claimed that the White House knew in advance that there was “a high chance that the prime minister wouldn’t go to Washington.” Ron Dermer, Israel’s ambassador to the US, made this clear during a meeting at the White House last Friday, the PMO said in a statement.

Jerusalem had never confirmed Netanyahu’s trip to Washington, and therefore it could not cancel it, the prime minister’s aides insisted, splitting semantic hairs. We never announced a trip to DC or a meeting in the Oval Office because we knew that we might end up not going, they argued.

The PMO stressed on Tuesday that the eventual decision to spurn Obama’s invite — the invite it had neglected to acknowledge for two weeks — stemmed from the desire to stay clear of domestic US politics and from the fact that Biden was visiting, ostensibly reducing the need for a top-level summit. Gilboa and fellow US-Israel expert Jonathan Rynhold are not persuaded, however.

Netanyahu could easily have addressed the AIPAC conference while refusing to meet presidential hopefuls on the sidelines, says Jonathan Rynhold

The Begin-Sadat Center’s Gilboa called the purported desire not to be seen intervening in the presidential campaign a “weak excuse.” He did offer two other explanations, however.

One possible rationale for Netanyahu’s staying home, he said, could be related to ongoing discussions over a memorandum of understanding on US foreign aid to Israel. Jerusalem is said to be seeking a $5 billion per year deal while the administration is offering $4 billion, and Netanyahu may be wondering whether to accept Obama’s offer or wait for a new president.

Another reason, posited Gilboa, might be prime ministerial apprehension over the administration’s possible support for a UN Security Council resolution on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “Despite the denials, Obama wants to make another effort at negotiating,” Gilboa said.

But even those two efforts at explanation do not resolve the question of why Netanyahu failed to acknowledge that a date for a meeting had been scheduled, and failed to perform the basic courtesy, once he’d decided to stay home, of informing the White House that he wouldn’t be coming. And even those two efforts at explanation, in Gilboa’s view, do not justify spurning the president.

In short, said Gilboa, “It really doesn’t make any sense. But then,” he added, “so many things haven’t made sense in US-Israel relations in the Netanyahu-Obama era.”

Rynhold, of Bar-Ilan University, said the desire to avoid wading into the US election campaign could be construed as a valid concern, except that Netanyahu had no problem meeting Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney during the 2012 election campaign.

“Given the back story with Romney,” he said, the argument “doesn’t add up. It just doesn’t ring true.” Could it be that Netanyahu, who was heavily criticized for warmly hosting Romney four years ago, has learned from a mistake? “The door is always open for repentance,” said Rynhold. “I just don’t buy it.”

Netanyahu does not always quickly make up his mind and act decisively, to put it mildly

Any way you look at it, Rynhold went on, the excuse about running into presidential candidates at AIPAC is deeply unsatisfying. Netanyahu could easily have addressed the AIPAC conference while refusing to meet presidential hopefuls on the sidelines. He could even have gone to Washington for a meeting with Obama and skipped AIPAC altogether, said Rynhold. Again, you simply don’t turn down a precious opportunity to talk with the president of the United States.

Rynhold offered another possible explanation for Netanyahu’s decision not to come to Washington: “It could also be that he doesn’t want to meet Donald Trump, but that if he refused to meet the guy likely to be Republican candidate, that could be problematic for him.” Over the last two weeks, Rynhold noted, “the Republican establishment and many neocons who are close to Netanyahu came out very strongly against Trump.” By staying home, the prime minister could avoid this potential pitfall.

Those familiar with the working methods of the prime minister might also legitimately posit that this latest saga is more a function of chronic indecision than calculated insult.

Netanyahu does not always quickly make up his mind and act decisively, to put it mildly — whether on relatively minor issues such as the appointments of media advisers (Ran Baratz) and ambassadors (Danny Dayan), or on central policy issues (striking Iran, settlement building, the Arab Peace Initiative, a strategic approach to avoiding the binational state he insists he wishes to prevent). Here too, he had plenty of time to ponder the question of whether to go to Washington, and make a decision, without causing a new crisis.

Ultimately, however, it is the unprecedented decision, rather than the familiar and problematic way it has played out, that remains inexplicable: The president of the United States, the international figure of greatest potential importance to the well-being of Israel, invited the prime minister of Israel for talks. And for the first time ever, the prime minister of Israel said no.

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