Israel's Netanyahu declines offer to meet with Obama: White House

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly cabinet meeting at his office in Jerusalem March 6, 2016. REUTERS/Abir Sultan/Pool

By Matt Spetalnick and Roberta Rampton WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has declined an offer to meet President Barack Obama at the White House later this month and canceled his trip to Washington, the White House said on Monday, citing Israeli news reports. Netanyahu's decision to nix his U.S. visit marked the latest episode in a fraught relationship with Obama that has yet to recover from their deep differences over last year's U.S.-led international nuclear deal with Iran, Israel's arch-foe. The White House said the Israeli government had requested a Netanyahu meeting with Obama on either March 18 or 19 and that he was offered a March 18 encounter two weeks ago. "We were looking forward to hosting the bilateral meeting, and we were surprised to first learn via media reports that the Prime Minister, rather than accept our invitation, opted to cancel his visit," Ned Price, a spokesman for the White House National Security Council, said in an emailed statement. Price denied Israeli news reports that "that we were not able to accommodate the prime minister's schedule." The White House has announced Obama's plans to be in Havana on March 21 and 22 for a historic visit aimed at moving closer toward normalized relations with Washington's former Cold War foe. There was no immediate word from Netanyahu's office about the cancellation, which also comes as the two countries are struggling to reach a new 10-year, multibillion-dollar defense aid agreement for Israel. Israel's Channel 10 TV, citing unnamed Israeli sources, said Netanyahu's decision to cancel the trip appeared to be motivated by reluctance to be perceived as interfering in the U.S. presidential election campaign, should any candidates seek to meet him in Washington. Netanyahu also saw little to show for such a trip, given that the new defense Memorandum of Understanding is "far from being agreed yet," Channel 10 said. Netanyahu had been expected to visit Washington this month not only to see Obama but to address the leading U.S. pro-Israel lobby, AIPAC. The prime minister made a speech to the U.S. Congress last March criticizing the then-emerging Iran nuclear deal and was denied a meeting with Obama during that visit in what was widely regarded as a diplomatic snub. But the two leaders met at the White House in November and sought to mend ties. U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, on a five-day trip to the Middle East, is due to visit Israel later this week and hold talks with Netanyahu. (Additional reporting by Timothy Gardner in Washington and Dan Williams in Jerusalem; Editing by James Dalgleish and Peter Cooney)