Netanyahu confirms he rejected invitation to meet Obama

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu confirms he rejected invitation to meet with US President Barack Obama

Photo by: Reuters
Photo by: Reuters

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly cabinet meeting at his office in Jerusalem on March 6, 2016.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Tuesday he declined an offer to meet US President Barack Obama at the White House later this month and cancelled his trip to Washington because of the heated US election campaign.

The White House first announced on Monday that Netanyahu had turned down the meeting - a move that was seen as the latest episode in a fraught relationship that has yet to recover from deep differences over last year's US-led international nuclear deal with Israel's foe Iran.

A White House spokesman said on Monday Israel had requested a meeting and that two weeks ago Netanyahu was offered a March 18 encounter, but US authorities later learned from media reports that Netanyahu had cancelled the visit.

"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," White House spokesman Ned Price said in an emailed statement. "Reports that we were not able to accommodate the prime minister's schedule are false," he said.

A statement issued by the Prime Minister's office said that while Netanyahu "appreciated Obama's willingness to meet him", he decided "not to go to Washington at this time, at the height of the primary election campaigns in the United States."

Netanyahu was widely seen as favouring Republican challenger Mitt Romney in the 2012 US election, and Israeli political sources said he was eager to avoid giving any impression of favouritism in the current race. 

The White House has announced Obama's plans to be in Havana on March 21 and 22 for a historic visit aimed at moving closer toward normalised relations with Washington's former Cold War adversary.

Netanyahu had been expected to visit Washington this month not only to see Obama but to address the annual conference of the leading US pro-Israel lobby, AIPAC. In the past he has sometimes spoken to the group via satellite.

The prime minister made a speech to the US Congress last March criticising the then-emerging Iran nuclear deal and was denied a meeting with Obama during that visit in what was widely regarded as a diplomatic snub.

But the two leaders met at the White House in November and sought to mend ties.

In recent months, differences over defense aid have underscored continuing tensions over the Iran deal.

Netanyahu and his aides suggested in February if Israel were unable to reach an accord with Obama, it could wait for the next president to secure better terms. Current US defense aid to Israel, worth about $3 billion annually, expires in 2018. The two sides are seeking an extension before Obama leaves office in January 2017.

US Vice President Joe Biden, on a five-day trip to the Middle East, is due to visit Israel later this week and hold talks with Netanyahu.

TRTWorld, Reuters