Netanyahu snub takes relations with White House to a new low – CNN

Jerusalem (CNN)President Barack Obama and U.S. officials were completely blindsided by the announcement that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will come to Washington to address a joint session of Congress this spring — a move that’s rattled the White House and diplomatic officials.

The announcement from House Speaker John Boehner’s office this week came after several high-level interactions between U.S. and Israeli officials, including a phone call between the President and Netanyahu and a multi-hour meeting between Secretary of State John Kerry and Israeli Ambassador Ron Dermer, a senior administration official told CNN.

Netanyahu’s snub has once again soured relations between the two world leaders, but U.S. officials insist the tensions won’t affect U.S. support for Israel.

The Boehner announcement came just over a week after Obama spoke over the phone with Netanyahu and urged him not to lobby in favor of new Iran sanctions, “asking for some space,” a senior administration official said. But the hawkish Israeli prime minister has a track record of supporting tougher sanctions against Iran and he’s expected to make that case when he addresses Congress in March.

Obama and other world leaders negotiating with Iran over its nuclear program have firmly argued against a sanctions bill from Congress, which they say would unravel a delicate international coalition and tank negotiations.

“We asked the Israelis in private and public to sit tight and the President made clear if a deal wasn’t reached he would be the first in line advocating for more sanctions,” the official said.

    That’s what makes Netanyahu’s decision to address Congress a “pretty big deal,” the official added.

    And just a day before Boehner’s announcement, Kerry met for several hours with Dermer, who reportedly coordinated the visit between Republican congressional leadership and Netanyahu.

    But, still, there was no word of a Netanyahu visit to Washington.

    “Is this a smart way for them to manage the relationship?” a source close to Kerry said. “The bilateral relationship is unshakable, but playing politics with that relationship could blunt Secretary Kerry’s enthusiasm for being Israel’s primary defender.”

    While U.S. and Israeli officials insist publicly that the relationship has “never been stronger” — and by most measures it remains very strong — Netanyahu’s address to Congress is just the latest in a string of diplomatic debacles that each time have sunk relations between the two leaders and their staff to new lows.

    Netanyahu’s continued settlement expansion has angered U.S. officials, prompting one senior White House official to call Netanyhau “chickenshit” in an article published in October that brought private tensions to light.

    Obama’s phone call with Netanyahu and Kerry’s meeting with Dermer just before the announcement give the snub a more personal veneer.

    Kerry had spent the last month making more than 50 calls to world leaders on the hot topics of Israeli-Palestinian relations, such as Palestinian attempts to gain statehood through international organizations, the source said, adding that Kerry’s “patience is not infinite.”

    The in-your-face move from Netanyahu’s camp comes at a time when Israel needs American support on the international stage, with Palestinians making a full-court press to obtain statehood unilaterally through international institutions.

    Another senior U.S. official said the Israeli breach of protocol and diplomatic courtesy takes a toll on U.S. officials working strenuously to support Israel on the international stage.

    “They come to us with a lot of requests, but don’t have the courtesy of telling us? That is what tipped it for us,” the official said.

    But again, the “core aspects of the relationship and commitment remain intact,” the official said.

    The snub may not waver the U.S.’s broad commitment to Israel’s security and to supporting Israel in the international arena, but Netanyahu will feel the repercussions when he comes to Washington in March without a ticket to the White House.

    The White House announced that Obama won’t meet with Netanyahu during his visit because of the proximity to Israeli elections.

    Netanyahu will address Congress just 12 days before the elections after he asked to push back his visit by nearly a month. And in Israel, Netanyahu’s visit will be a boon for him and his party as he plays himself up as the best protector of Israel’s security, of which a relationship with the United States is a key factor.

    “Is that the relationship they want to have?” the senior administration official said. “The last thing we want to do is hurt Israel, but if he is able to stiff the U.S. president like that and we still offer him a meeting — that invites him and anyone else to do that over and over.”

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