UPDATE -- President Obama spoke to Prime Minister Netanyahu for an hour tonight to staunch the political and diplomatic fallout from reports that the White House had snubbed the Israeli leader by refusing to meet with him when he travels to New York later this month for the U.N. General Assembly.
The story first appeared in Jerusalem this morning and appeared to have been leaked out of the PM's office. It had all the earmarks of an attempt to meddle in the presidential election by trying to suggest an anti-Israel slight by Barack Obama. Some conservative media were already playing the story that way, even though National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor said the President had no plans for any bilateral meetings with foreign leaders at the UN. A White House statement said the prime minister's office never requested a meeting in Washington and none was ever denied.
Most of the hour-long conversation was devoted to discussing their "determination to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon" reaffirming their cooperation that and other security issues, according to the official White House readout of the call.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's request to meet with President Barack Obama later this month was turned down by the White House, which cited a very tight campaign schedule and other commitments. But there may be more to the story
Israeli sources – meaning leaks from the PM's office – portrayed the incident as a personal insult, while the White House said it was a problem of conflicting schedules. It could be payback for what one Israeli journalist called "the malice and abuse and disrespect he has heaped on the president."
National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor told journalists, "They’re simply not in the city at the same time. But the President and PM are in frequent contact and the PM will meet with other senior officials, including Secretary Clinton, during his visit”
In light of the longstanding tensions between the two leaders, look for the Mitt Romney campaign to be in high dudgeon, accusing the President of snubbing our close ally. Republicans are spending millions this year to make Israel a partisan wedge issue in the presidential campaign, with Romney accusing the president of "tossing Israel under the bus."
News of the rebuff comes on the same day Netanyahu launched what Ha'aretz called "an unprecedented verbal attack" on the Obama administration for rejecting his demand that Washington set red lines on Iranian nuclear development which would trigger an American military strike.
"The world tells Israel 'wait, there's still time'. And I say, 'Wait for what? Wait until when?' 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," an angry Netanyahu lashed out.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told Bloomberg Radio in an interview Sunday that the United States is "not setting deadlines" for Iran and still considers negotiations to be "by far the best approach" to blocking Iran's nuclear weapons program. A department spokeswoman later added, "We don't think it's particularly useful to have those conversations in public."
Ha'aretz said this would be the first time Netanyahu came to the United States as prime minister and did not have a presidential meeting, calling it "a new low in relations" between the two men. Their stormy relationship reached a nadir in May 2011 when Netanyahu rudely lectured the President on live television in the Oval Office about the Middle East situation.
Al-Monitor's Laura Rozen reported an Israeli source "cautioned that it’s possible the Israeli side is portraying the scheduling matter as a US rebuff in order to cast Obama as chilly towards the Israeli leader amid the US presidential election campaign."
In what appeared to be a clear message to Netanyahu to calm down, Defense Minister Ehud Barak said, "We must not forget that the U.S. is Israel's most important source of support in terms of security," and differences between the two allies should be ironed out "but behind closed doors… We must also keep in mind the strategic importance of the partnership with the United States, and refrain from hurting it,"
Following the PM's latest outburst, Ha'aretz columnist Bradley Burston said, "If immediate red lines are in order, Benjamin Netanyahu would be well advised to set them for himself, and the malice and abuse and disrespect he has heaped on the president."
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