Obama denies snubbing Netanyahu amid chill

UPDATE 9:32 p.m. EDT: The White House denied late Tuesday that President Barack Obama had snubbed Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu by rejecting his request for a meeting when he comes to the annual United Nations General Assembly in New York in late September. A spokesman confirmed an Israeli news reports that the two leaders would not meet but cited the president's uncertain and hectic election-year schedule.

"Contrary to previous press reports, there was never any request for a meeting between the Prime Minister and President in Washington, nor was this request ever denied," U.S. National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor told reporters by email.

(Obama and Netanyahu later spoke by telephone for an hour "as a part of their ongoing consultations," the White House said. "The two leaders discussed the threat posed by Iran's nuclear program, and our close cooperation on Iran and other security issues. President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu 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," it said in a statement).

Vietor's comments and the conversation came after Israel's Haaretz newspaper reported that the White House had turned down a request for talks. Haaretz said Netanyahu had asked Obama for a meeting during his stay in the United States and expressed a willingness to come to Washington to do so. Earlier, when asked about that report, Vietor had said that the two leaders would not meet.

"The President arrives in New York for the UN on Monday, September 24 and departs on Tuesday, September 25. The Prime Minister doesn't arrive in New York until later in the week," Vietor said.

"They're simply not in the city at the same time. But the President and PM are in frequent contact and the PM will meet with other senior officials, including Secretary Clinton, during his visit."

The Haaretz report said the request was "declined" and that this "marks a new low" in relations between Obama and Netanyahu, who has publicly criticized Washington for not taking a harder line on Iran's nuclear program. (Still, Haaretz noted that "Netanyahu will spend only two and a half days on U.S. soil" and the White House "said that at this time Obama's schedule does not allow for a meeting.")

Mitt Romney has repeatedly accused Obama of shortchanging the relationship between the U.S. and Israel.

But a knowledgeable American official stressed it wasn't personal, saying Obama's schedule was in flux and emphasizing that he doesn't anticipate the president "will have any bilats [bilateral meetings with foreign leaders] at UNGA [the U.N. General Assembly] this year."

Still, Obama reportedly planned to appear on David Letterman on Sept. 18, the first day of the annual diplomatic gathering.

Republican Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham criticized Obama for not sitting down with Netanyahu, describing themselves as "surprised and disappointed."

"It is puzzling that the President can't make time to see the head of state of one of America's closest allies in the world," they said in a joint statement. "If these reports are true, the White House's decision sends a troubling signal to our ally Israel about America's commitment at this dangerous and challenging time, especially as Iran continues to work actively toward developing a nuclear weapons capability."