President Barack Obama will not meet with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during the latter's controversial March 3 visit to Washington, the White House announced Thursday, saying a meeting could be perceived as an attempt by the administration to influence Israel's March 17 elections.
"The president will not be meeting with Prime Minister Netanyahu because of the proximity to the Israeli election, which is just two weeks after his planned address to the U.S. Congress," National Security Council spokeswoman Bernadette Meehan said in a emailed statement.
“As a matter of long-standing practice and principle, we do not see heads of state or candidates in close proximity to their elections, so as to avoid the appearance of influencing a democratic election in a foreign country," she said.
Netanyahu's visit has further strained already difficult relations between the Israeli leader and Obama. Republican House Speaker John Boehner invited Netanyahu to address a joint meeting of Congress for the express purpose of challenging the president's approach to Islamist extremism and negotiations with Iran over that country's nuclear program. The White House, which found out about the visit from Boehner's office, accused Israel of breaching diplomatic protocol under which foreign leaders advise host leaders of pending visits.
Netanyahu has made no secret of his opposition to ongoing talks with Iran, saying that Tehran cannot be trusted to abandon its ability to build a nuclear weapon that could directly threaten Israel. His visit will come as the White House tries to tamp down a move in Congress to pass legislation that envisions new economic sanctions on Iran if no satisfactory comprehensive nuclear deal can be reached.
"The president has been clear about his opposition to Congress passing new legislation on Iran that could undermine our negotiations and divide the international community," said Meehan. "The president has had many conversations with the Prime Minister on this matter, and I am sure they will continue to be in contact on this and other important matters.”