WASHINGTON (JTA) — The White House rejected reports saying Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declined to meet with President Barack Obama later this month and canceled a planned visit to Washington, D.C., because the president would not accommodate his schedule.
The American Israel Public Affairs Committee had invited Netanyahu to address its annual conference March 20-22 in Washington, but he apparently turned down the invitation.
In a rare move, the White House on Monday outright denied the reports, saying it had offered Netanyahu a meeting on March 18. Obama is going to be in Cuba during the AIPAC conference, so the meeting could not be coincident with the conference, as has been the custom in the past.
“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.
“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.”
He added, “Reports that we were not able to accommodate the Prime Minister’s schedule are false.”
The Obama administration, sensitive to years of complaints that it treats Netanyahu unfairly, appeared eager to demonstrate that it was ready to accommodate the Israeli leader.
The Israeli Embassy in Washington declined a request for comment, and inquiries to the Prime Minister’s Office were not returned.
Following the White House statement, the Israeli media and CNN reported 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. Netanyahu has made no official statement about his plans to attend the AIPAC conference or to meet with the president.
Vice President Joe Biden arrives this week in Israel for an official visit that includes a meeting with Netanyahu.