Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu canceled his trip to Washington, D.C., and also declined to meet with President Barack Obama later in March, according to a White House statement on March 7.
It is an open secret that Obama and Netanyahu have had a somewhat fraught relationship in the past, which was only heightened after the president’s pursuit of a nuclear deal with Iran in 2015.
But this particular diplomatic fracas does not make too much sense on the surface, unless it really does reflect nothing more than an ever-decaying relationship between Israel and the Obama administration.
According to the White House, the Israeli government requested Netanyahu meet with Obama on either March 18 or 19, to which it was granted a meeting on the 18th, Reuters reports.
But then Netanyahu canceled the meeting and the White House was only informed of the situation through media reports. A White House spokesperson characterized the administration’s reaction as surprised.
The Israeli government has refuted the White House’s claims, saying the White House already knew the prime minister was considering cancelling the visit. NBC reports that Netanyahu’s office has cited his lack of desire to come to the U.S. at the height of the presidential primary season.
This excuse makes sense on its face as Netanyahu is widely supported by the Republican Party, whose primary race is fully underway at this point.
He may have calculated that being in the U.S. at this time may affect the primary race and damage his nation’s interests in some way.
For example, as Zach Beauchamp of Vox notes, GOP front-runner Donald Trump has bucked the party’s orthodoxy on the subject of Israel. This doesn’t have anything to do with Trump’s actual support for the nation; he has identified himself as "pro-Israel" for years.
But Trump has also said he’ll remain "neutral" in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict -- to which he drew fire from presidential candidates Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas and Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida -- and also questioned Israel’s commitment to peace in a speech made in December 2015. His continued rise suggests the influence of pro-Israeli groups like American Israel Public Affairs Committee within the Republican base may be fading, and Netanyahu may calculate that he wants nothing to do with this development right now.
Still, it’s hard to imagine that a President Trump would have worse relations with Netanyahu than Obama has. This is what makes one ponder that Netanyahu’s cancelations have to do more with continued ire over the Iran deal than anything having to do with U.S. presidential politics.
In any case, it’s a missed opportunity to discuss a current 10-year, multi-billion dollar defense aid agreement as well as other pressing international issues. But perhaps this will be the subject of talks between Netanyahu and Vice President Joe Biden, who was in Israel on March 8.