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White House rebuffs report of AIPAC snub over Netanyahu

Source says Treasury Secretary Jack Lew likely to attend major confab, rejecting reports Obama looking to give cold shoulder, but AIPAC official says signals are clear that top-level official not coming

Stuart Winer is a breaking news editor at The Times of Israel.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addresses AIPAC's annual conference in Washington, DC, on Tuesday, March 4, 2014. (photo credit: PMO)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addresses AIPAC's annual conference in Washington, DC, on Tuesday, March 4, 2014. (photo credit: PMO)

A White House source denied that an upcoming meeting of leading pro-Israel lobby AIPAC would be shunned as payback for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s planned speech to Congress, in a report published Sunday.

The unnamed official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, accused Netanyahu’s supporters of a “psychological warfare” ploy for circulating rumors that the White House will only send a low-ranking representative to the coming meeting of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee to make the prime minister’s current rift with the US administration seem like an issue with US Jews too.

“Netanyahu has a difficult problem with Obama and with the administration,” the source said, according to Haaretz. “Now he’s trying to turn it into a problem between the Jews and the Obama administration.”

On Friday, The Associated Press reported that administration officials said the White House was planning on sending a lower-ranking official than normal to represent the administration at the annual policy conference of AIPAC, as part of giving Netanyahu the cold shoulder. President Barack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State John Kerry have all addressed the annual conference, attended by some 14,000 participants, in recent years.

Although the White House has not yet announced who will be attending the AIPAC event, scheduled for March 1, Haaretz reported US Treasury Secretary Jack Lew is believed likely to go.

The administration “differentiates between Netanyahu and the lobby, and does not see the lobby as the main factor behind Netanyahu’s invitation to Congress,” the source noted.

An AIPAC official said Friday that the group had not yet received any reply to its invitation for senior administration figures to attend the meeting. The official stressed that last-minute RSVPs are not unusual, but the White House has been signaling for some time that a Cabinet-level guest may not be going.

Army Radio reported Sunday that it was highly unusual for AIPAC to still not know who the administration would be sending to address its conference this close to the event. The radio station’s diplomatic correspondent suggested that the Obama Administration was sending “a message” to AIPAC’s supporters about their need to decide on where their loyalties primarily lie.

US officials believe Netanyahu’s trip to Washington is aimed primarily at derailing a nuclear deal with Iran, Obama’s signature foreign policy objective.

While Netanyahu has long been skeptical of the negotiations, his opposition has increased over what he sees as Obama’s willingness to make concessions that would leave Iran on the brink of being able to build a nuclear weapon. His opposition has intensified as negotiations go into overdrive with an end-of-March deadline for a framework deal.

Sources have indicated that Obama will seek ways to blunt Netanyahu’s efforts as a rebuke for going ahead with the speech, despite the White House’s public and unwavering objection to the event.

The prime minister accepted an invitation last month from Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio), the speaker of the US House of Representatives, to speak to Congress, but the White House complained that Boehner had not cleared the invitation with Obama or Democrats in Congress.

A number of Jewish groups have said the visit is unwise and have called on Netanyahu and Boehner to postpone it at least until after Israel’s March 17 elections. Some Democratic lawmakers have said they will not attend the speech.

Associated Press contributed to this report.

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