President Obama will not meet with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu when the Israeli leader visits Washington in March, the White House said Thursday, citing concerns that a meeting could be seen as meddling in Israel’s election two weeks later.
National Security Council spokeswoman Bernadette Meehan said the decision to forgo a face-to-face was “a matter of long-standing practice and principle.”
“We do not see heads of state or candidates in close proximity to their elections, so as to avoid the appearance of influencing a democratic election in a foreign country,” Meehan said in a statement.
Netanyahu is scheduled to address a joint session of Congress in early March and will advocate for more sanctions against Iran.
The plans have provoked a tense triangle of exchanges among the White House, Israel and Republican House Speaker John A. Boehner of Ohio. In a breach of diplomatic protocol that clearly irked the administration, Boehner announced Wednesday that he'd invited the prime minister without informing the White House or the State Department in advance.
The move was viewed as a direct answer to the president’s threat to veto any legislation that threatens new sanctions while negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program continue – as well as to the lobbying strategy employed by the White House. Last week, British Prime Minister David Cameron used a visit to Washington to call lawmakers to urge them to oppose sanctions legislation.
Boehner’s office initially announced Netanyahu’s trip as scheduled for Feb. 11, but said Thursday the date had been pushed back until March 3. The visit will now coincide with a conference of the pro-Israel American Israel Public Affairs Committee, at which Netanyahu is a regular speaker.
The timing means the notoriously rough relationship between the president and the prime minister won't be put on display one final time before election. Obama and Netanyahu don’t need a meeting to discuss Iran, Meehan noted.
“The president has been clear about his opposition to Congress passing new legislation on Iran that could undermine our negotiations and divide the international community,” she said. “The president has had many conversations with the prime minister on this matter, and I am sure they will continue to be in contact on this and other important matters.”
Lisa Mascaro in the Washington bureau contributed to this report.
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