Obama to avoid meeting with Netanyahu

2012-09-12 09:00

Washington/ Jerusalem - In a highly unusual rebuff to a close ally as tensions escalated over how to deal with Iran's nuclear programme, the White House said on Tuesday President Barack Obama would not meet Benjamin Netanyahu during the Israeli prime minister's US visit later this month.

The apparent snub, coupled with Netanyahu's sharpened demands for a tougher US line against Iran, threatened to plunge US-Israeli relations into crisis and add pressure on Obama in the final stretch of a tight presidential election campaign.

An Israeli official, who declined to be identified, said the White House had refused Netanyahu's request to meet Obama when the Israeli leader visits the United States to attend the UN General Assembly, telling the Israelis, "The president's schedule will not permit that."

White House spokesperson Tommy Vietor denied that Netanyahu had ever made such an overture - let alone that it had been spurned - insisting instead that the two leaders were attending the General Assembly on different days and would not be in New York at the same time.

With US-Israeli differences increasingly laid bare and allies of Republican presidential challenger Mitt Romney seizing the chance to slam Obama over his Israel policy, the president phoned Netanyahu on Tuesday night.

Netanyahu has had a strained relationship with Obama, but they have met on all but one of his US trips since 2009. The president was on a foreign visit when the prime minister came to the United States in November 2010.

Fellow conservatives

By withholding a meeting, the Democratic president could alienate some Jewish and pro-Israel voters as he seeks a second term in the 6 November election. Romney has already accused Obama of being too tough on Israel and not hard enough on Iran.

Obama and Netanyahu, according to a White House summary of their call, reaffirmed a "united" determination to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon and to continue close consultations. But they mentioned nothing about the "red lines" Netanyahu wants Obama to set for Tehran.

Obama's avoidance of a face-to-face meeting could signal US displeasure with Netanyahu's intensifying push a specific ultimatum to Iran. Obama aides say privately they believe Netanyahu favours Romney, a fellow conservative, although the Israeli leader has been cautious to avoid being seen interfering in the election campaign.

Word that the two men would not meet came on the same day that Netanyahu said the United States had forfeited its moral right to stop Israel from taking action against Iran's nuclear programme because it had refused to be firm with Tehran itself.

Netanyahu has argued that setting a clear boundary for Iran's uranium enrichment activities and imposing stronger economic sanctions could deter Tehran from developing nuclear weapons and mitigate the need for military action.

Criticism from McCain

In comments that appeared to bring the possibility of an Israeli attack on Iran closer, Netanyahu took Washington to task for rebuffing his call to set a clear "red line" for Iran's nuclear programme, which has already prompted four rounds of UN sanctions.

"The world tells Israel, 'Wait, there's still time.' And I say, 'Wait for what? Wait until when?'" Netanyahu said.

"Those in the international community who refuse to put red lines before Iran don't have a moral right to place a red light before Israel," he added, addressing a news conference with Bulgaria's prime minister.

John McCain and Lindsey Graham, Republican senators and critics of Obama's foreign policy, said in a joint statement: "It is puzzling that the president can't make time to see the head of state of one of America's closest allies in the world."

"If these reports are true, the White House's decision sends a troubling signal to our ally Israel about America's commitment at this dangerous and challenging time," they said.

The website of Israeli daily newspaper Haaretz called Netanyahu's words "an unprecedented verbal attack on the US government".

The Jewish vote

Iran makes no secret of its hostility to Israel, widely assumed to be the region's only nuclear-armed power, but says its nuclear programme is purely peaceful.

Netanyahu's relations with Obama have been tense because of Iran and other issues, such as Jewish settlement building in the occupied West Bank.

But he has never framed his differences with Obama - who has pledged he will "always have Israel's back" and has not ruled out military action against Iran if all else fails - in moral terms.

Obama has been seeking to shore up his advantage over Romney with Jewish voters - who could make a difference in election battleground states like Florida and Ohio - by stressing his support for Israel's security.

He received 78% of the Jewish vote in 2008, but a nationwide Gallup poll in June showed him down to 64% backing versus Romney's 29%.

While seeking to put Netanyahu in his place might not go down well with pro-Israel voters, the White House may also be trying to avoid an embarrassing encounter.

Busy schedule

When the two men met in the Oval Office in May 2011, Netanyahu lectured Obama on Jewish history and criticised his approach to Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy.

Netanyahu's office had offered a solution to the leaders' scheduling problems by having him visit Washington before his UN speech on 28 September, but the White House did not accept the idea, the Israeli official said.

Obama, who is keeping up a busy schedule of campaign rallies across the country, is expected to take a break to address the opening session at the United Nations on 25 September.

There was no immediate comment from the Romney campaign, which had curtailed its public statements out of respect for the 11th anniversary of the 11 September 2001 attacks.

Netanyahu's harsh comments on Tuesday followed US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's remarks on Monday that the United States would not set a deadline in further talks with Iran, and that there was still time for sanctions and diplomacy to work.

Clinton - instead of Obama - will meet Netanyahu at the United Nations later in September, the White House said.

US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta said on Tuesday that Washington would have little more than a year to act to stop Iran if it decided to produce a nuclear weapon.

Strike unpopular in Israel

Iran has threatened to retaliate against Israel and US interests in the Gulf if it is attacked, and any such conflict could throw Obama's re-election bid off course.

Netanyahu did not mention Clinton by name, but pointedly parroted her use of the word "deadline", saying: "If Iran knows that there is no 'deadline', what will it do? Exactly what it's doing. It's continuing, without any interference, towards obtaining a nuclear weapons capability and from there, nuclear bombs."

"So far, we can say with certainty that diplomacy and sanctions haven't worked. The sanctions have hurt the Iranian economy, but they haven't stopped the Iranian nuclear programme. That's a fact. And the fact is that every day that passes, Iran gets closer and closer to nuclear bombs."

Despite the recent tougher Israeli rhetoric, over the past week, Netanyahu, in calling for a "red line", had appeared to be backing away from military action. Polls suggest a majority of Israelis do not want to strike Iran without US support.

Defence Minister Ehud Barak seemed to criticise Netanyahu's assault on the Jewish state's biggest ally.

"Despite the differences and importance of maintaining Israel's independence of action, we must remember the importance of partnership with the United States and try as much as possible not to hurt that," a statement from his office said.

  • fidel.mgoqi - 2012-09-12 09:12

    Netayahoo is a toxic plague that should be avoided by all clear thinking leaders!

      joe.mase.7 - 2012-09-12 09:43

      It appears it has started... Let's hope this trend continues.

      almeleh - 2012-09-12 13:07

      Do you have rabies? You are frothing at the mouth.

      fred.fraser.12 - 2012-09-13 04:00

      But then to Fidel, even Nelson Mandela is a toxic plague. Almost. According to him, Nelson Mandela is a phony, a lackey of the West, a modern-day Uncle Tom.

      henk.scheepers1 - 2012-09-27 23:56

      Do you mean clear thinking idiots like you...?your picture explain everything...

  • kuvha.tshilamatanda - 2012-09-12 09:58

    think obama is trying to save israel by avoiding netanyaho,israel want by all means to attack iran and such action would be disaster,iran will use its full force to wipe out israel on the map.everyone knows that iran has weapons of mass destruction thats why united states is not interested on invading iran!

      ivan.schoultz - 2012-09-12 17:35

      what do you mean by "weapons of mass destruction"? If you mean "nuclear", absolutely not, everyone knows Iran does NOT have them. If you mean "biological", then why is absolutely NO-ONE screaming about Iran's intention to kill the world? If you mean "religious", then you're entitled to your opinion. Remember that the crazies at the time told everyone who would listen that Iraq had "weapons of mass destruction" and Saddam Hussein was gonna go rouge unless we stop him ... so when they invaded and nothing was found who did you believe? The crazies who did not apologize for the lie but simply stopped telling it ... or the ones who exposed the lies about the WMD's? It seems you've been lied to again, and have not learned the lesson of history.

  • captaine.morgan.90 - 2012-09-12 11:06

    F**king media creating propaganda again ... BBC reports: Mr Obama - who is in the middle of an election campaign - is due to speak at the UN General Assembly in New York on 25 September, while Mr Netanyahu will give an address on 28 September. Satellite image provided by GeoEye in September 2009 showing facility under construction inside a mountain some 20 miles (32km) north-east of Qom, Iran Iran maintains that its nuclear programme is for civilian purposes "They're simply not in the city at the same time," White House spokesman Tommy Vietor said. He added: "Contrary to previous press reports, there was never any request for a meeting between the prime minister and president in Washington, nor was this request ever denied."

      fidel.mgoqi - 2012-09-12 11:21

      Spin, obviously Obama's team wouldn't come out and say so, or they could have arranged that he was far away from Netayahoo as possible. Do people like you still need the tolling of the bell to tell them when it's time for dinner?

      fred.fraser.12 - 2012-09-13 04:03

      Quite right. There's no snub. The White House has been very clear about this. In any event that would be suicide. Obama, who's turned more into politician than leader IMO wouldn't risk that.

  • Shane Loxton - 2012-09-12 11:14

    There goes the Jewish Vote

      Jaba - 2012-09-12 13:15

      "Jewish vote" o please... Obama needs to look at the millions of evangelical Christians in the US who view Israel as the US's #1 friend. Currently evangelical Christians make up 28.6 percent of the US population; these people support Israel much more than all the other Christian groups’ whose support for Israel is already staunch. Furthermore, evangelicals hold a more pro-Israel stance than the US Jewish population itself. The Economist estimated in May 2012 that "over one-third of Americans, more than 100m, can be considered evangelical".

      fidel.mgoqi - 2012-09-12 13:56

      Those Christian Zionist fundemantelists are the Tea-party degenerates who want armageddon and rapture, aligning their interests with Zionists who want to bring about the coming of the messiah. It's no wonder they have alligned their interests with the nut jobs in Tel Aviv!

  • Jaba - 2012-09-12 13:13

    "Jewish vote" o please... Obama needs to look at the millions of evangelical Christians in the US who view Israel as the US's #1 friend. Currently evangelical Christians make up 28.6 percent of the US population; these people support Israel much more than all the other Christian groups’ whose support for Israel is already staunch. Furthermore, evangelicals hold a more pro-Israel stance than the US Jewish population itself. The Economist estimated in May 2012 that "over one-third of Americans, more than 100m, can be considered evangelical".

  • dustin.mccrindle.5 - 2012-09-12 18:08

    What bothers me is that the electioneering goes on for months and months while the president is supposed to be running the country???? Its just showboating, entertainment

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