US President Barack Obama will not meet with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during his upcoming visit to Washington, now rescheduled from February to March, citing “the proximity to the Israeli election.”
“As 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,” National Security Council spokeswoman Bernadette Meehan said Thursday.
US Secretary of State John Kerry would also not hold talks with Netanyahu, the State Department said.
The comments came a day after House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner invited Netanyahu to address a special joint session of Congress on February 11. The White House said it was surprised that it had not been informed of the Netanyahu visit in advance – either by Boehner or by Israeli officials – calling it a breach of protocol.
Boehner’s invitation also caused a kerfuffle, as some Netanyahu opponents said Republicans were meddling in Israel’s election, while others suggested Boehner was using the prime minister to wage a battle with Obama over Iran sanctions. It is already expected that Netanyahu’s speech on Capitol Hill will focus precisely on the need for increased sanctions against Iran, as well as on Islamist extremism.
In an attempt to quell the tension, the Prime Minister’s Office announced on Thursday that Netanyahu had formally accepted an invitation to address Congress, but would do so as a part of a trip to Washington in early March to attend AIPAC’s annual conference, and not as part of a special trip in February.
On Wednesday evening, after Boehner confirmed that the speech to Congress could be moved from February 11 to March 3, Israel contacted the White House to inform it of the change in plans.
Obama has also been invited to by AIPAC, the largest pro-Israel lobby in Washington, to address its annual conference, scheduled for March 1-3. He has yet to respond.
The statement put out by the Prime Minister’s Office announcing Netanyahu’s formal acceptance of the invitation, and the change of date, stressed that in his speeches to both Congress and AIPAC, he would “thank President Obama, the US Congress and the American people for their support of Israel.
“I am honored by this invitation, which reflects the special friendship shared by Israel and the United States as well as the strong bipartisan support for Israel across America,” Netanyahu was quoted as saying in the statement. “I look forward to being able to share with the joint session Israel’s vision for working together to address these threats and to reiterate Israel’s commitment to the bond that unites our two democracies.”
The prime minister also said he spoke with Obama last week about “the common challenges we face from Islamist extremism, including resurgent terrorism and Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons.”
The rescheduling of the speech could alter the time frame for a vote on new sanctions legislation in the House of Representatives.
While sources close to the Senate leadership told The Jerusalem Post to expect a vote on the Nuclear Weapon Free Iran Act of 2015 this month, Boehner could wait until Netanyahu’s speech to schedule a floor vote.
Diplomats at the table with Iran are seeking to clinch an agreement by the end of March, weeks after Netanyahu’s address.
The deadline for a comprehensive accord is June 30.
This will be the third time Netanyahu has addressed a joint congressional session. The last time – in 2011 – also came during a trip he made to the US to address the AIPAC conference.
Meanwhile, US Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, the senior Democrat in the chamber, said on Thursday that Republican congressional leaders had not asked him about inviting Netanyahu, although he would welcome the speech.
“I wasn’t consulted,” Reid told reporters in his first public appearance since suffering an eye injury in an exercise accident early this month.
“I have a good relationship with Netanyahu,” Reid said. “He called me as a matter of fact about my injury, which I appreciated.
But you know, he’s a leader of a country, he’s going to come give a speech to a joint session of Congress. We’ll listen to what he has to say.”
Reuters contributed to this report.