US President Barack Obama told Jewish leaders last week he would not meet with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu until after the June 30 deadline for the Iranian nuclear talks, the New York Times reported on Thursday.
Obama told the group he imagined a face-to-face meeting with the Israeli leader would likely end with Netanyahu “publicly venting his complaints about the president’s policies,” particularly on Iran, according to anonymous sources familiar with the meeting.
“So for now, the president said, he would speak with the prime minister over the telephone, and an Oval Office invitation would wait until after the June 30 deadline for negotiating the details of the Iran deal,” the Times report said.
Ahead of the March 17 Israeli elections, the White House said Obama would certainly meet with Netanyahu if the prime minister was reelected, but did not specify when the president would extend a formal invitation to Jerusalem.
After Netanyahu’s victory, Obama’s adviser Ben Rhodes told Israeli television he was sure an invitation would be forthcoming. Rhodes acknowledged that Obama and Netanyahu have a “substantive policy difference as it relates to Iran.” Nonetheless, he said, the prime minister would be invited to the White House once a new Israeli government was in place. “Absolutely, we’d expect that once there’s an Israeli government formed, there’d certainly be occasion for the two of them to meet in Washington,” he said.
Obama’s refusal to sit down with Netanyahu aside, the New York Times report said, the US administration is “engaged in an aggressive effort to assuage the concerns of American Jewish groups and pro-Israel members of Congress over the nuclear agreement with Iran, and to limit the potential political fallout for Democrats of what has become a bitter rift in the American and Israeli relationship.”
In an effort to defuse tensions, Obama has been meeting with Jewish and pro-Israel figures in the US in a concentrated effort to reaffirm the United States’ commitments to Israel, despite policy disagreements between the two countries.
“We are evaluating our approach to a two-state solution, not our broader relationship with Israel,” Jen Psaki, Mr. Obama’s communications director, told the New York Times. “Despite occasional differences on matters of policy, our relationship is strong and enduring, as demonstrated by our unwavering support for Israel’s security.”
In a symbolic gesture, Vice President Joe Biden on Thursday will attend the Israeli Independence Day festivities in Washington, DC, alongside Israeli Ambassador to the US Ron Dermer, who has been a divisive figure in both the United States and Israel.
“This administration is nothing if not pragmatic, and the issue on the table now is creating conditions for a reasonable outcome should the Iran agreement be reached,” said Daniel C. Kurtzer, a former American ambassador to Israel and Egypt who is now a professor at Princeton.
“There was a moment in the midst of this where you wonder if anger was replacing policy,” Kurtzer added, “but they came to their senses and said, ‘Okay, anger is not a policy, now we’ve made our point, it’s time to move on.’”
An unnamed source who attended the meeting last week similarly remarked: “There was a spike in the EKG that was triggered by the prime minister’s remarks in and around the election, but it feels like the pulse rate has started to come down again.”
The two leaders have never maintained an exemplary personal relationship, but following a row over Netanyahu’s speech in Congress last month, critiquing the Obama-backed Iran deal, and some of the prime minister’s remarks during the Israeli elections, the discord rapidly gave way to open hostility.
Last year a White House staffer referred to the Israeli prime minister as “chickenshit.”
Enmity arose again in the weeks leading up to Netanyahu’s March 3 speech in Congress, arranged without Obama’s prior consent.
Just two weeks later, White House officials railed against comments made by Netanyahu about the threat of “droves of Arab voters” heading to the polls, and the prime minister’s rejection of the possibility of a two-state solution, a position he later reversed. The US indicated it might come out in favor of a UN resolution on the Israeli-Palestinian issue — a move Israel strongly opposes.
“We are signaling that if the Israeli government’s position is no longer to pursue a Palestinian state, we’re going to have to broaden the spectrum of options we pursue going forward,” a senior administration official said at the time.
“The positions taken by the prime minister in the last days of the campaign have raised very significant substantive questions that go far beyond just optics,” the official said.
Although Netanyahu quickly reaffirmed his commitment to the two-state solution after the March 17 election, his retraction was rejected by the White House. The prime minister has fiercely and repeatedly criticized the emerging nuclear deal with Iran between the US and world powers, saying it paves Iran’s path to the bomb and poses an existential threat to Israel.