Netanyahu snub takes relations with White House to a new low

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  • Administration unhappy with Netanyahu's plans to address Congress
  • Israeli leader unhappy with U.S. stance on Iran's nuclear program

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 Obama 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 expansion of Jewish settlements in East Jerusalem has angered U.S. officials, prompting one senior White House official to call Netanyhau a "chickenshit" in an October article in The Atlantic 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 made more than 50 calls in the preceding month 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 sway 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. He had asked to push back his visit by nearly a month.
U.S. officials aren't the only ones taken aback. Former Israeli President Shimon Peres, while refusing to directly criticize Netanyahu, conceded "there are rules and norms (about) how two countries have to behave."
"In that case, I think the rules created differences, and all of us have to look -- including our prime minister -- to go back to the basic rules and respect," Peres said in an interview in Davos, Switzerland, on Saturday.
It would come as no surprise that Netanyahu's opponents in the election are harsher. His former finance minister and current competitor in the March election, Yair Lapid, said Saturday that Netanyahu "is destroying our strategic relations with the United States for an election speech."
Yet ahead of the elections, Netanyahu's visit may be a boon for him and his party in Israel 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."