By Jeffrey Heller
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s cancellation of a proposed meeting with US President Barack Obama put more strain on their troubled ties on Tuesday just before a visit to Israel by Vice President Joe Biden.
The White House said on Monday it was “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 the suggestion in some reports that among his reasons was Obama’s unavailability to see him.
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.
It was the latest episode in a fraught relationship between the right-wing Israeli leader and Democratic US president that has yet to recover from deep differences over last year’s US-led international nuclear deal with Israel’s foe Iran.
Biden, whose 2010 visit to Israel was marred by acrimony over a Jewish settlement plan announced during his trip, arrives later in the day for talks on Wednesday with Netanyahu in Jerusalem and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in the occupied West Bank.
With violence surging for the past five months, US officials have said no peace breakthrough is expected during Biden’s visit.
In Jerusalem on Tuesday, a 50-year-old Palestinian woman who tried to stab Israeli police officers was shot dead, a police spokeswoman said.
Since October, Palestinian stabbings, shootings and car rammings have killed 28 Israelis and an American. Israeli forces have killed at least 174 Palestinians, 116 of whom Israel says were assailants. Most others were shot dead during violent protests.
Netanyahu has hailed Biden’s visit as a sign of Israel’s “strong relations” with the United States.
Within hours, however, a flap erupted with the White House, which said that contrary to media reports, Netanyahu had been offered a March 18 meeting with Obama, ahead of the president’s landmark Cuba visit on March 21 and 22.
Netanyahu’s office said on Tuesday he would not attend the AIPAC event and voiced appreciation for Obama’s willingness to host him.
It said Netanyahu was reluctant to be drawn into the US presidential campaign, where candidates have been vying to assert their bona fides as friends of Israel.
In 2012, Netanyahu hosted then-Republican contender Mitt Romney in Israel in what many Democrats saw as a bid to undercut Obama’s second-term run. Israel denied meddling.