White House: Netanyahu Declines Offer to Meet With Obama

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -
President Barack Obama meets with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, Monday, Nov. 9, 2015. The president and prime minister sought to mend their fractured relationship during their meeting, the first time they have talked face to face in more than a year. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)
President Barack Obama meets with Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, in this Nov. 2015 file photo. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has declined an offer to meet President Barack Obama at the White House later this month and canceled his trip to Washington, the White House said on Monday.

Netanyahu’s decision to nix his U.S. visit marked the latest episode in a fraught relationship with Obama that has yet to recover from their deep differences over last year’s U.S.-led international nuclear deal with Iran, Israel’s archfoe.

The White House said the Israeli government had requested a Netanyahu meeting with Obama on either March 18 or 19 and that two weeks ago he was offered a March 18 encounter.

“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 e-mailed statement. “Reports that we were not able to accommodate the prime minister’s schedule are false,” he said.

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 normalized relations with Washington’s former Cold War adversary.

Prime Minister Netanyahu said Tuesday that he had declined an offer to meet Obama later this month because of the heated U.S. election campaign.

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 favoring Republican challenger Mitt Romney in the 2012 U.S. election, and Israeli political sources said he was eager to avoid giving any impression of favoritism in the current race.

Israel’s Channel 10, citing unnamed Israeli sources, said Netanyahu’s decision to scrap the trip appeared to be motivated by reluctance to be perceived as interfering in the U.S. presidential election campaign, should any candidates seek to meet him in Washington.

Netanyahu also saw little to show for such a trip, given that the new defense Memorandum of Understanding is “far from being agreed yet,” Channel 10 said. Several Israeli media quoted Israeli officials as saying that no appropriate time could be found for the meeting before Obama’s departure for Cuba.

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

The prime minister made a speech to the U.S. Congress last March criticizing 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 that if Israel was unable to reach an accord with Obama, it could wait for the next president to secure better terms. Current U.S. 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.

U.S. 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.