Israel has disputed a White House claim that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu “surprised” the US government by cancelling a planned visit to Washington.
Mr Netanyahu had been expected to visit later in March on a trip coinciding with a major pro-Israel group’s annual summit, but his office said he would not travel because he did not wish to come at the height of US presidential primaries.
The spat comes amid tense relations with US President Barack Obama in the last year of his presidency, and shortly before US vice president Joe Biden was set to visit Israel.
The White House said Israel had proposed two dates for a meeting between the leaders and the US had offered to meet on one of those days.
“We were looking forward to hosting the bilateral meeting,” said Ned Price, a spokesman for the White House’s National Security Council. “We were surprised to first learn via media reports that the prime minister, rather than accept our invitation, opted to cancel his visit.”
But Mr Netanyahu’s office said Israel’s ambassador to the US had already informed the White House last week there was a “good chance” he would not make the trip.
It said the ambassador told the White House there would be a final decision on Monday. That day, Israeli news reports erroneously reported that Mr Netanyahu would not travel because he was unwilling to meet with Mr Obama. Mr Netanyahu’s office said it then informed the White House directly that the prime minister would not be visiting.
Mr Netanyahu was invited to address a summit of the pro-Israel group AIPAC. An Israeli official said Mr Netanyahu wanted to avoid potential meetings with presidential candidates at the summit. Mr Netanyahu was accused of siding with Mitt Romney in the 2012 presidential campaign and he appears wary of sparking any additional claims of meddling in US politics.
“It’s a tumultuous primary season in the United States … we don’t want to inject ourselves into that tumultuous process,” the official said.
It was the latest signal of ongoing tensions between the US and Israel. Relations never fully recovered after Mr Obama incensed Mr Netanyahu’s government by pursuing and then enacting a nuclear deal with Iran.
Mr Biden’s last visit to Israel in 2010 was also marked by a diplomatic spat with Washington, when Israel announced settlement construction plans during his visit.
Mr Netanyahu’s office said the prime minister is “looking forward to the visit of Biden and discussing how we can meet the many challenges facing the region”.
Mr Biden is not expected to offer any new initiative on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict when he travels to Israel and the West Bank. The White House has said it does not believe either side has the political will for reviving the peace process as the last year of Mr Obama’s administration winds down.
However, there have also been reports the Obama administration is considering setting parameters for an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal to make it easier for Mr Obama’s successor to pursue. Israel rejects an imposed formula and says any outline of a peace accord has to be reached through direct negotiations.