March 8, 2016 / 8:25 AM / in 2 years

Netanyahu's no to Obama no big deal but poorly signaled: White House

WASHINGTON/TEL AVIV (Reuters) - Israel would have shown good manners had it informed the United States directly rather than through the news media that it was turning down a proposed summit meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama, the White House said on Tuesday.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem February 28, 2016. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun

But spokesman Josh Earnest said there was “no offense taken” by the decision which Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Tuesday ascribed to a desire to steer clear of the U.S. presidential election campaign.

It was the latest episode in a fraught relationship between the right-wing Israeli leader and the 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.

In a stark reminder of the paralysis in peace talks which Obama tried to revive earlier in his tenure, an American tourist was stabbed to death on a boardwalk in Tel Aviv in the most serious of several Palestinian attacks on Tuesday.

The stabbing occurred about the time U.S. Vice President Joe Biden began a two-day visit to Israel. Biden met former Israeli president Shimon Peres and was due to hold talks on Wednesday with Netanyahu in Jerusalem and with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in the occupied West Bank.

With a wave of Palestinian street attacks now five months old, U.S. officials did not expect a peace breakthrough during Biden’s visit. A 2010 Biden visit was marred by acrimony over a Jewish settlement plan Israel announced during his trip.

WHITE HOUSE ‘SURPRISED’

The White House said on Monday it had been “surprised” to learn first from Israeli media that Netanyahu had decided against coming to a conference of the pro-Israel lobby AIPAC in Washington on March 20, and to see a suggestion in some reports that Obama’s unavailability had been one of the reasons.

It said Netanyahu had been offered a March 18 meeting with Obama, ahead of the president’s landmark visit to Cuba on March 21 and 22.

Asked whether the Netanyahu government should have told the Obama administration before the media, Earnest said on Tuesday, “I think it’s just good manners.”  

Zeev Elkin, an Israeli cabinet minister close to Netanyahu, countered that Israeli ambassador Ron Dermer had given the White House advance warning the trip might not happen.

Netanyahu’s office cited the U.S. election campaign in saying he would not travel to Washington for the AIPAC event, and voiced appreciation for Obama’s willingness to host him.

In 2012, Netanyahu hosted Republican presidential contender Mitt Romney in Israel in what many Democrats saw as a bid to undermine Obama’s attempt to secure a second term. Israel denied meddling.

While candidates for the Republican and Democratic presidential nomination have been vying to assert their credentials as friends of Israel, Obama is not up for re-election in November, having served a maximum two terms.

Earnest said Biden was not in Israel to handle talks over a memorandum of understanding about the United States providing military support to Israel. There was a separate channel through which those negotiations were taking place, he said.

Additional reporting by Dan Williams and Timothy Gardner in Washington; Editing by Kevin Liffey and James Dalgleish

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