Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu headed to Washington on Sunday, officially to speak before the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America. However, the Prime Minister's Office expressed its hope that US President Obama would meet with Netanyahu during his three-day visit, even though, so far, the White House has not confirmed such a meeting.
Since Israeli premiers hardly ever visit the United States without meeting the president, the absence of a scheduled appointment is widely seen as yet another sign of fallout between the states.
“I think this is quite a message”, says Arnon Gutfeld, professor for American History at Tel Aviv university. “Obviously, Obama has other things on his mind, for example his health care legislation. If he would have felt that it’s worth while to meet with Netanyahu, he would have found some time to schedule an appointment. During the Bush administration, doors were wide open but things have changed.”
'A bunch of amateurs'
The ties between Israel and the United States have deteriorated lately since Obama first started backing Palestinian demands for a total Jewish settlement freeze ahead of the resumption of peace talks. However, Galia Golan, a professor in the Lauder School of Government, Diplomacy and Strategy in Herzliya, does not believe the issue to indicate a crisis.
"It is not as if Netanyahu had been invited and the meeting was cancelled”, she says. “It was Bibi’s decision to seek a meeting while there for the GA. As far as I know, President Obama was not even supposed to be in Washington. He cancelled a trip because of the Texas shooting.
"Of course the ties between the two countries have been problematic ever since Obama demanded a total settlement freeze. But Obama has clearly made an effort to appease Israel and repair some of the damage he had ostensibly caused, sending for example US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton last week who publicly supported Netanyahu, praising him for making "unprecedented" concessions.
"It is unwise of Netanyahu to try to force a meeting that Obama did not want. Frankly, I don't know why the premier's office is leaking these rumours. It will be very embarrassing if they don't meet eventually and only hurt us unless, of course, this is the governments intention: To make it look like there is in fact a crisis, though I do not see the logic in that.”
Eytan Bentsur, former director-general of the Foreign Ministry, believes the trouble concerning a possible encounter mainly results from a lack of professionalism in the prime minister’s bureau.
“They handled the entire thing like a bunch of amateurs. First of all, they announced the meeting way before it was confirmed. Only in the later stages, they admitted that they were only hoping to get it scheduled. Then they were bombarding everybody in the White House with their requests. This is disrespectful and contra-productive”, he says.
“I don’t want to believe that Obama is unwilling to meet with Netanyahu. But he is the busiest man on earth. Hopefully, there will be a meeting eventually, but the way they dealt with the situation provoked an uneasiness in the relations that is redundant and completely self-inflicted.”
So far, Netanyahu intends to address the Jewish Federations conference on Monday and hold talks in Congress. After his visit in Washington, he plans to fly to Paris to meet President Nicolas Sarkozy, although France has yet to confirm that meeting either.