JERUSALEM: Israel on Tuesday disputed a White House claim that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu “surprised” the Obama administration by cancelling a planned visit to Washington, saying that the White House knew Netanyahu was considering not coming.
Netanyahu had been expected to visit later in March on a trip coinciding with a major pro-Israel group’s annual summit, but his office said he would not travel because he did not wish to come at the height of U.S. presidential primaries.
The spat comes amid tense relations with U.S. President Obama in the last year of his presidency, and shortly before U.S. Vice President Joe Biden was set to touch down in Israel.
But Netanyahu’s office said Israel’s ambassador to the U.S. had already informed the White House last week there was a “good chance” Netanyahu would not make the trip.
It said the ambassador told the White House there would be a final decision on Monday. That day, Israeli news reports erroneously reported that Netanyahu would not travel because he was unwilling to meet with Obama. Netanyahu’s office said it then informed the White House directly that Netanyahu would not be visiting.
Netanyahu was invited to address a summit of the pro-Israel group AIPAC. An Israeli official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the issue publicly, said Netanyahu wanted to avoid potential meetings with presidential candidates at the summit. Netanyahu was accused of siding with Mitt Romney in the 2012 presidential campaign and he appears wary of sparking any additional claims of meddling in American politics.
“It’s a tumultuous primary season in the United States … we don’t want to inject ourselves into that tumultuous process,” the official said.
It was the latest signal of ongoing tensions between the U.S. and its closest Mideast ally. Relations between Israel and the U.S. never fully recovered after Obama incensed Netanyahu’s government by pursuing and then enacting a nuclear deal with Iran.
Biden’s last visit to Israel in 2010 was also marked by a diplomatic spat with Washington, when Israel announced settlement construction plans during his visit.
Netanyahu’s office said Tuesday the prime minister is “looking forward to the visit of Biden and discussing how we can meet the many challenges facing the region.”
Vice President Biden is not expected to offer any new initiative on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict when he travels to Israel and the West Bank. The White House has said it does not believe either side has the political will for reviving the peace process as the last year of Obama’s administration winds down.
However, there have also been reports the Obama administration is considering setting parameters for an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal to make it easier for Obama’s successor to pursue. Israel rejects an imposed formula and says any outline of a peace accord has to be reached through direct negotiations.