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Amid tension on Iran, White House denies nixing Netanyahu meeting

U.S. President Barack Obama with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak—both checking their watches—in September 2010 at the White House. Credit: White House.
U.S. President Barack Obama with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak—both checking their watches—in September 2010 at the White House. Credit: White House.

Against the backdrop of a reportedly growing rift between the U.S. and Israel regarding the Iranian nuclear threat, the White House denied reports that it rejected a meeting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu requested with President Barack Obama.

According to a report in Haaretz, Netanyahu’s office reached out to the White House about a meeting when the prime minister is in the U.S. for two and a half days during the United Nations General Assembly in New York this month. While Netanyahu was willing to meet the president in Washington, DC, the White House rejected his proposition due to Obama’s schedule, the newspaper said. However, the White House went on to dispute that information.

“Contrary to reports in the press, there was never a request for Prime Minister Netanyahu to meet with President Obama in Washington, nor was a request for a meeting ever denied,” the White House said Sept. 11.

National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor wrote in an email to Bloomberg News that a meeting between the leaders couldn’t take place because Netanyahu isn’t going to arrive in New York until after Sept. 25, the day Obama was scheduled to leave the city.

“They’re simply not in the city at the same time,” Vietor wrote.

Addressing the Iranian threat Sept. 12, Netanyahu hinted at the differences he has with Obama on that issue by saying “leadership is tested when it keeps to its goals even when friends disagree and even when they are the best of friends,” according to a statement from the prime minister’s office quoted by Bloomberg.

Reports of the White House declining the meeting with Netanyahu came after Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Sept. 10 raised the eyebrows of Israeli officials by saying the U.S. is “not setting deadlines” for Iran and still considers negotiations to be “by far the best approach” to prevent the Islamic Republic from developing nuclear weapons. Additionally, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey recently said he does not wish to be “complicit” in a potential Israeli strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities.

On Sept. 12, the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA) reacted to reports on the Obama-Netanyahu meeting by criticizing Obama for scheduling a Sept. 18 appearance on the “Late Show” with David Letterman, but not making time for the prime minister.

“It is clear that the impending Iranian nuclear threat is an existential one for both Israel and the United States,” the ZOA said in a statement. “It is only common sense that a meeting between the two leaders would underscore what the White House has been professing about the two nations being in firm agreement on the need to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons.”

The White House said in a statement that Obama spoke with Netanyahu on the phone for an hour the night of Sept. 11, including a discussion on the Iranian threat. The two leaders “reaffirmed that they are united in their determination to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, and agreed to continue their close consultations going forward,” according to the statement.

U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland, meanwhile, said it isn’t “particularly useful” to debate the Iranian threat in public.

“It doesn’t help the process and it doesn’t help the integrity of the diplomacy,” she told reporters Sept. 11. “To be standing here at the podium parsing the details of the Iranian nuclear program is not helpful to getting where we want to go.”

Nuland also said that establishing “red lines”—points that will prompt the U.S. to take military action if they are crossed by Iran—is “not useful.” Netanyahu, however, continues to push for red lines to be set. Speaking to reporters Sept. 11, he criticized the world’s wait-and-see attitude on Iran. The Obama administration, for one, has repeatedly said that there remains time for diplomacy and sanctions to solve the nuclear problem.

“The world tells Israel ‘wait, there’s still time,’” Netanyahu said. “And I say, ‘Wait for what? Wait until when?’ Those in the international community who refuse to put red lines before Iran don’t have a moral right to place a red light before Israel.”

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