Washington and Jerusalem agree that President Barack Obama won’t be meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu this month. They disagree about why.
On Monday, unnamed Israeli officials told the Israeli newspaper Haaretz that Netanyahu had canceled a trip to Washington after the White House couldn’t find time for him to meet with Obama before the president leaves for a historic visit to Havana.
The comments infuriated the White House, which said that Netanyahu had been invited to see Obama but declined the offer.
“We were looking forward to hosting the bilateral meeting, and we were surprised to first learn via media reports that the prime minister, rather than accept our invitation, opted to cancel his visit,” National Security Council spokesman Ned Price said in an emailed statement. “Reports that we were not able to accommodate the prime minister’s schedule are false.”
Price said in the statement that Netanyahu requested a meeting at the White House and was offered March 17 and 18, just before Obama makes a historic trip to Cuba. Netanyahu had been expected to travel to Washington to address the high-profile annual conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, which begins March 20, but hadn’t publicly committed to attending in person.
A spokesperson for AIPAC wouldn’t confirm to Foreign Policy whether Netanyahu would be traveling to Washington for the conference, as had been widely expected. Other press reports have said he’ll be speaking via video conference.
By Monday evening, Netanyahu appeared to be in damage control mode, with unnamed aides saying that he had decided to cancel his trip to Washington due to concerns over appearing to influence the U.S. presidential election, rather than because of a snub from the White House.
“The prime minister decided not to travel to Washington at the current time at the height of the US election season,” officials told Haaretz. “The prime minister appreciates that President [Barack] Obama would have met with him in advance of the conference and his planned trip to Cuba.”
The back-and-forth comes at a fragile time for the U.S.-Israeli relationship. Though the Obama administration repeatedly reiterates Israel is the United States’s closest ally in the Middle East, Washington and Jerusalem have yet to get past the rupture created by Israel’s all-out attempt to derail the administration’s signature nuclear deal with Iran. A number of administration officials remain livid over Netanyahu’s address to a joint session of Congress just over a year ago, which the Israeli leader used to unsuccessfully lobby against the pact.
At the time of Netanyahu’s address to Congress last year, Obama said he wouldn’t meet with the Israeli leader due to the proximity to elections in Israel, which Netanyahu narrowly won. The two leaders last met in November.
Vice President Joe Biden is in the region this week and due to visit Israel, and Netanyahu, in just days.
The NSC didn’t respond to a request for comment.
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