Middle East

Israel's Netanyahu rejects US 'surprise' at Obama talks cancellation

Benjamin Netanyahu looks at Barack Obama during a meeting at the White House on 9 November 2015 Image copyright AFP
Image caption Relations between Benjamin Netanyahu and Barack Obama have been strained for years

Israel's prime minister has rejected a White House claim that it was surprised by his decision to turn down the offer of talks with President Barack Obama.

US officials complained on Monday that they had learnt via the media that Benjamin Netanyahu had cancelled a planned visit to Washington next week.

But Mr Netanyahu's office said Israel's ambassador had said on Friday there was a good chance he would not be visiting.

Relations between Mr Netanyahu and Mr Obama have long been strained.

Last year, the White House accused the Israeli leader of a breach of diplomatic protocol after he arranged to address a joint session of Congress without consulting or notifying the president.

He used the speech to urge US lawmakers to reject the nuclear deal with Iran, which he viewed as a danger to Israel.

'Erroneous reports'

Mr Netanyahu had been expected to visit Washington to address the annual conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (Aipac).

The White House said the prime minister's office had proposed two dates for talks with Mr Obama and that one of them worked with the president's schedule.

"We were looking forward to hosting the bilateral meeting," Ned Price, a spokesman for the White House's National Security Council, told reporters. "We were surprised to first learn via media reports that the prime minister, rather than accept our invitation, opted to cancel his visit."

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Mr Netanyahu angered Mr Obama when he denounced the Iran deal in Congress

Mr Netanyahu's office initially declined to comment, but on Tuesday it issued a statement stressing that Israeli ambassador Ron Dermer had informed the White House on Friday that there was "a good chance" that Mr Netanyahu would not be visiting Washington and that a final decision would be taken on Monday.

"On Monday, news reports suggested that the PM would not be travelling to Washington and erroneously stated that the president was unwilling to meet with the PM," the statement said.

"The [prime minister's office] immediately corrected the erroneous news reports and officially informed the administration that the PM would not be coming to Washington."

It added that Mr Netanyahu had wanted to avoid interfering in the US presidential primary elections that are taking place and that he would now address the Aipac conference via satellite link.

The dispute comes ahead of a visit to Israel by US Vice-President Joe Biden.

Mr Biden will arrive later on Tuesday and hold talks with Mr Netanyahu on Wednesday.

They are expected to discuss a new US military aid package, with Israel reportedly seeking substantially more than the $3bn (£2.1bn) a year it currently receives.

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