Netanyahu’s office says White House knew meeting might not take place

Marcy Oster

JERUSALEM (JTA) — The office of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rejected an Obama administration official’s statement that the White House was “surprised” to learn that Netanyahu decided not to meet with the president in Washington, D.C., later this month.

“Last Friday, during a meeting in the White House, Israel’s envoy to Washington, Ron Dermer, expressed Prime Minister Netanyahu’s appreciation for Obama’s offer to meet with him should he visit Washington,” according to a statement issued Tuesday by the Prime Minister’s Office, the Israeli media reported. “With that, Dermer also informed them that there was a high chance that the prime minister won’t go to Washington, and that a final answer would be given Monday after he spoke with him.”

An Obama administration spokesman said Monday that the White House had learned that an offered March 18 meeting between Obama and Netanyahu in Washington would not take place.

“The Israeli government requested a meeting between President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu on March 17 or 18,” National Security Council spokesman Ned Price said in an email to JTA.

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“Two weeks ago, the White House offered the Prime Minister a meeting on March 18th. 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.”

The Prime Minister’s Office said it has formally notified the White House that Netanyahu would not be in Washington later this month.

The American Israel Public Affairs Committee had invited Netanyahu to address its annual conference March 20-22 in Washington, but Netanyahu apparently turned down the invitation. He will deliver a speech via satellite.

Israeli media and CNN reported Monday evening that Netanyahu’s true motive for not visiting the U.S. capital now is that he is wary of being caught up in an especially bitter election year contest, one in which support for Israel has been a contentious issue. The reports cite anonymous sources with knowledge of Netanyahu’s thinking.

AIPAC is expected to invite some or all of the presidential candidates to its conference, and several could have requested a meeting with Netanyahu.

Vice President Joe Biden arrives  in Israel Tuesday evening for an official visit that includes a meeting with Netanyahu.

Netanyahu spoke at last year’s AIPAC conference in Washington. Obama declined to meet with Netanyahu at that time, since it was just two weeks before national elections in Israel. Netanyahu spoke at a joint meeting of Congress, however, angering the White House because it had not been made aware of the address.

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