Obama knew Netanyahu was unlikely to visit, Jerusalem says

After White House says it only learned via media Israeli leader was spurning meeting with president, PM’s office claims envoy told administration last week there would probably be no summit

US President Barack Obama, left, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at Ben Gurion Airport, Wednesday, March 20, 2013. (AP/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
US President Barack Obama, left, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at Ben Gurion Airport, Wednesday, March 20, 2013. (AP/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

Jerusalem rebuffed a White House claim early Tuesday that Washington had only learned from the media that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wouldn’t visit the US for a meeting with President Barack Obama, hours after the White House said it was “surprised” over reports that the Israeli leader had spurned an offer to meet.

The statement from Netanyahu’s office, which contended no meeting had ever been scheduled, was a sign of lingering tensions between Jerusalem and Washington, coming hours before US Vice President Joe Biden was slated to visit Israel for high level talks.

The Prime Minister’s Office said Ron Dermer, the Israeli envoy to the US, told the White House last week that there was a good chance Netanyahu would not fly to the US in late March, despite Obama’s availability.

“Last Friday, during a meeting in the White House, Israel’s envoy to Washington Ron Dermer expressed Prime Minister Netanyahu’s appreciation for Obama’s offer to meet with him, should he visit Washington,” the statement read. “With that, Dermer also informed them that there was a high chance that the prime minister won’t go to Washington, and that a final answer would be given Monday after he spoke with him.”

Israel's Ambassador to the US Ron Dermer, July 29, 2014 (Ron Sachs)
Israel’s Ambassador to the US Ron Dermer, July 29, 2014 (Ron Sachs)

The White House had earlier claimed it only learned of Netanyahu’s travel plans via the media.

“We were looking forward to hosting the bilateral meeting,” Ned Price, a spokesman for the White House’s National Security Council, said late Monday. “We were surprised to first learn via media reports that the prime minister, rather than accept our invitation, opted to cancel his visit.”

The unusually pointed pushback from the White House was the latest signal of ongoing tensions between the US and its closest Mideast ally, which have never fully recovered since Obama incensed Netanyahu’s government by pursuing and then enacting a nuclear deal with Iran.

News of Netanyahu deciding to skip the trip broke Monday evening during Israel’s Channel 10 newscast.

The initial reports had suggested that Netanyahu had decided to skip the trip, planned to coincide with the annual policy conference of pro-Israel lobby AIPAC on March 20, after being unable to clinch a meeting with Obama before he left for Cuba on March 21.

The White House and Jerusalem both rejected that report.

The Prime Minister’s Office Tuesday morning said it had moved “quickly” to correct the record with the Americans and let them know Netanyahu would not be meeting with Obama.

“The PMO quickly worked to correct the mistaken report and officially update the government that Prime Minister Netanyahu would not visit Washington,” the statement read.

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.

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 summit two weeks ago.

Earlier on Monday evening, the Israeli Channel 10 report had claimed Netanyahu’s office did offer to have the prime minister fly in on Friday 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.

A senior Israeli official told The Times of Israel Monday that the trip was off, but made no mention of the White House having scheduled a meeting, only that the visit was deemed unnecessary.

“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 Biden this week and the assumption is that in the discussion with Biden all the issues will come up.”

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,” the official said.

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.

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