Israel's PM Netanyahu declines offer to meet US President Obama, cancels trip to Washington: White House

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly cabinet meeting at his office in Jerusalem, on March 6, 2016.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly cabinet meeting at his office in Jerusalem, on March 6, 2016.PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON (REUTERS) - Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has declined an offer to meet United States President Barack Obama at the White House later this month and cancelled his trip to Washington, the White House said on Monday (March 7).

Mr Netanyahu's decision to nix his US visit marked the latest episode in a fraught relationship with Mr Obama that has yet to recover from their deep differences over last year's US-led international nuclear deal with Iran, Israel's arch foe.

The White House said the Israeli government had requested for Mr Netanyahu to meet Mr Obama on either March 18 or 19, and that two weeks ago he was offered a March 18 encounter.

"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," White House spokesman Ned Price said in an e-mailed statement.

"Reports that we were not able to accommodate the Prime Minister's schedule are false," he said.

The White House has announced Mr Obama's plans to be in Havana on March 21 and 22 for a historic visit aimed at moving closer towards normalised relations with Washington's former Cold War adversary.

There was no immediate word from Mr Netanyahu's office about the cancellation, which also comes as the two close allies are struggling to negotiate a new 10-year, multibillion-dollar defence aid agreement for Israel.

Israel's Channel 10 TV, citing unnamed Israeli sources, said Mr Netanyahu's decision to scrap the trip appeared to be motivated by reluctance to be perceived as interfering in the US presidential election campaign, should any candidates seek to meet him in Washington.

Mr Netanyahu also saw little to show for such a trip, given that the new defence memorandum of understanding is "far from being agreed yet", Channel 10 said. Several Israeli media quoted Israeli officials as saying that no appropriate time could be found for the meeting before Mr Obama's departure for Cuba.

Mr Netanyahu had been expected to visit Washington this month not only to see Mr Obama but to address the annual conference of the leading US pro-Israel lobby, AIPAC. In the past he has sometimes spoken to the group via satellite.

The Prime Minister made a speech to the US Congress last March criticising the then-emerging Iran nuclear deal and was denied a meeting with Mr Obama during that visit in what was widely regarded as a diplomatic snub.

But the two leaders met at the White House in November and sought to mend ties.

In recent months, differences over defence aid have underscored continuing tensions over the Iran deal.

Mr Netanyahu and his aides suggested in February if Israel were unable to reach an accord with Mr Obama, it could wait for the next president to secure better terms.

Current US defence aid to Israel, worth about US$3 billion annually, expires in 2018. The two sides are seeking an extension before Mr Obama leaves office in January 2017.

US Vice-President Joe Biden, who is on a five-day trip to the Middle East, is due to visit Israel later this week and hold talks with Mr Netanyahu.