Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's office on Tuesday defended his decision to turn down an invitation to the White House that sparked controversy hours before Vice President Joe Biden arrives for talks.
The White House said on Monday that it was “surprised” Netanyahu spurned President Barack Obama’s invitation for talks later this month and said it had first learnt of it through news reports.
It had offered to host Netanyahu on March 18 during a planned visit by the premier for the annual conference of pro-Israel lobby group AIPAC.
But Netanyahu’s office said that he had wanted to avoid interfering in US presidential primary elections currently taking place and would not be travelling to Washington but would address AIPAC by satellite link.
It said Israeli ambassador Ron Dermer had told the White House on Friday that there was “a good chance” Netanyahu would not be visiting Washington and that a final decision would be taken on Monday.
“On Monday, news reports suggested that the PM would not be travelling 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.
“The PM is looking forward to the visit of VP Biden and discussing how we can meet the many challenges facing the region.”
On Monday in Washington, an Obama aide said the Israeli government had requested a meeting to take place on March 17 or 18, and the White House had responded selecting the latter date two weeks ago.
“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,” said National Security Council spokesman Ned Price.
“Reports that we were not able to accommodate the prime minister’s schedule are false.”
Obama and Netanyahu have had a rocky personal relationship, worsened by the Israeli premier’s forceful opposition to the Iran nuclear deal, including in a speech to the US Congress.
But the two have sought to set aside their disagreements in recent months and work out a new 10-year defence aid package for Israel as well as demonstrate that the ties between the two traditional allies remain strong.
Biden is due to arrive in Tel Aviv later on Tuesday and hold talks with Netanyahu on Wednesday. He is also scheduled to meet Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas.