WH: Netanyahu scrapped March meeting with Obama

WH: Netanyahu scrapped March meeting with Obama
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The White House said Monday that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu chose to cancel a planned meeting this month with President Obama.

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The claim runs contrary to media reports that Netanyahu called off a visit to the United States because it was not possible to coordinate a sit-down with the president. 

National Security Council spokesperson Ned Price said the White House extended an invitation two weeks ago to Netanyahu for a March 18 meeting with Obama, following a request from the Israeli government. U.S. officials first learned through news reports that the meeting was off. 

“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,” Price said in a statement. 

“Reports that we were not able to accommodate the prime minister's schedule are false.”

The Israeli embassy in Washington did not comment on Monday. On Tuesday, the prime minister's office issued a statement claiming that Ambassador Ron Dermer had told White House officials that there was a "good chance" Netanyahu would not make the trip despite the meeting offer. 

"On Monday, news reports suggested that the PM would not be traveling to Washington and erroneously stated that the president was unwilling to meet with the PM," the statement said.

The prime minister's office "immediately corrected the erroneous news reports and officially informed the administration that the PM would not be coming to Washington."

This is the latest diplomatic flare-up between Obama and Netanyahu, who have had a fraught relationship during their eight years in power. 

Netanyahu planned to travel to the U.S. to attend an annual conference held by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), a major pro-Israel group in Washington. 

One of the reasons given for canceling the trip was that it was impossible to schedule a meeting with Obama, according to the left-leaning Israeli newspaper Haaretz. 

Netanyahu was scheduled to arrive in the U.S. on March 20, the same day Obama is set to leave for his trip to Cuba.

The prime minister’s staff spoke with the White House about moving Netanyahu’s arrival up to March 18 in order to hold a meeting, Haaretz reported. 

But the newspaper wrote that despite the talks, “no appropriate time was found for the meeting.” 

Netanyahu officials also cited the lack of agreement on a new long-term military aid deal between the U.S. and Israel and apprehension about interfering with the 2016 presidential campaign as part of their decision not to travel to Washington. 

Citing sources in Netanyahu’s office, Haaretz reported the prime minister was invited to meet with presidential candidates from both parties at the AIPAC conference but did not want to do so without also meeting with Obama. 

But White House press secretary Josh Earnest on Tuesday downplayed the notion that the administration took offense to Netanyahu’s decision not to travel to the U.S.

“There is no reason to consider this a snub. I think the question is simply a matter of scheduling,” Earnest told reporters.

He added it would have been "good manners" for the Israelis to inform the White House privately of Netanyahu's decision before informing the press.

"We would have preferred to have heard about that in person rather than through media reports.”

Tensions between Obama and Netanyahu reached a boiling point last year over the president’s efforts to broker a nuclear deal with Iran. 

The Israeli leader slammed the then-emerging agreement during a speech before Congress last March. 

The White House called the speech a breach of protocol, claiming it was not informed that Netanyahu had accepted an invitation to speak from then-House Speaker John BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerTrump's pick for Federal Reserve chief is right choice at right time The two-party system is dying — let’s put it out of its misery One year later, neither party can get past last year's election MORE (R-Ohio) before the event was announced. 

The latest spat comes days before Vice President Biden is set to meet with Netanyahu in Jerusalem during a multicountry tour of the Middle East. 

The two leaders were expected to discuss the defense aid deal. Both sides have been unable to agree to terms after months of talks.

Netanyahu is "looking forward to the visit of VP Biden and discussing how we can meet the many challenges facing the region," his office said.

Asked if the meeting will be awkward, Earnest replied “if anyone can handle it, it’s the vice president.”

-- This report was updated on Tuesday, March 8 at 1:16 p.m.