JERUSALEM: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s cancellation of a proposed meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama put more strain on their troubled ties on Tuesday just before a visit to Israel by Vice President Joe Biden.
The White House said on Monday it was “surprised” to learn first from Israeli media that Netanyahu had decided against coming to the annual conference of the pro-Israel lobby AIPAC in Washington on March 20, and the suggestion in some reports that among his reasons was Obama’s unavailability to see him.
Zeev Elkin, an Israeli cabinet minister close to Netanyahu denied the Obama administration had been caught off guard, saying Israeli ambassador Ron Dermer had given the White House advance warning the trip might not happen.
It was the latest episode in a fraught relationship between the right-wing Israeli leader and Democratic U.S. president that has yet to recover from deep differences over last year’s U.S.-led international nuclear deal with Israel’s foe Iran.
Biden, whose 2010 visit to Israel was marred by acrimony over a Jewish settlement plan announced during his trip, arrives later in the day for separate talks on Wednesday with Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, with no breakthrough expected on stalled U.S.-brokered peace efforts.
Netanyahu has publicly hailed Biden’s visit as an expression of “the strong relations” between Israel the United States.
Within hours, however, a flap erupted with the White House over apparent miscommunication over a Netanyahu visit.
White House spokesman Ned Price said that contrary to Israeli media reports, Netanyahu had been offered a March 18 meeting with Obama, ahead of the president’s landmark Cuba visit on March 21 and 22.
In a statement, Netanyahu’s office said on Tuesday that he would not be going to the AIPAC event and voiced appreciation for Obama’s willingness to host him before leaving for Havana.
The statement said one of Netanyahu’s reasons for not travelling to Washington was reluctance to be drawn into the U.S. presidential campaign, where candidates have been vying to assert their bona fides as friends of Israel.
In 2012, Netanyahu hosted then-Republican contender Mitt Romney in Israel in what many Democrats saw as a bid to undercut Obama’s run for a second term in office. Israel denied meddling.