White House declines Israeli PM's request for meeting amid tensions over Iran


JERUSALEM – The White House has rejected a request by Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu to meet President Barack Obama in the United States this month, an Israeli official said yesterday, after a row erupted between the allies over Iran’s nuclear programme.

An Israeli official said that Mr Netanyahu’s aides had asked for a meeting when he visits the United Nations this month, and “the White House has got back to us and said it appears a meeting is not possible. It said that the president’s schedule will not permit that.”

Mr Netanyahu, who has met Mr Obama on all his US trips since 2009, has been pushing him to adopt a tougher line against Iran.

He argues that setting a clear boundary for Iran’s uranium enrichment activities and imposing stronger economic sanctions could deter Tehran from developing nuclear weapons and mitigate the need for military action.

In comments that appeared to bring the possibility of an Israeli attack on Iran closer, Mr Netanyahu had earlier taken Washington to task for rebuffing his call to set a “red line” for Iran’s nuclear programme, which has already prompted four rounds of UN sanctions.

“The world tells Israel: ‘Wait, there’s still time.’ And I say, ‘Wait for what? Wait until when?’” said Mr Netanyahu. “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,” he added.

The website of Israel’s daily newspaper Haaretz called his words “an unprecedented verbal attack on the US government”.

Iran makes no secret of its hostility to Israel, widely assumed to be the region’s only nuclear-armed power, but says its nuclear programme is purely peaceful.

Mr Netanyahu’s relations with Mr Obama have been strained over Iran and other issues, such as Jewish settlement building in the occupied West Bank.

But he has never framed his differences with Mr Obama – who has pledged he will “always have Israel’s back” and is in a re-election campaign – in moral terms.

Republican challenger Mitt Romney has accused Mr Obama of throwing Israel “under the bus”.

Mr Netanyahu’s comments followed US secretary of state Hillary Clinton’s remarks on Monday that the US would not set a deadline in further talks with Iran, and that there was still time for diplomacy to work.

Diplomats have also said six world powers – including the US – are poised to voice “serious concern” about Iran’s uranium enrichment programme and to urge it to open up access to nuclear sites.

US defence secretary Leon Panetta said yesterday that Washington would have little more than a year to act to stop Iran if it decided to produce a nuclear weapon. Iran has threatened to retaliate against Israel and US interests in the Gulf if it is attacked, and any such conflict could throw Mr Obama’s election campaign off course.

In calling for a “red line”, Mr Netanyahu had appeared to be backing away from military action and preparing the ground for a possible meeting with Mr Obama.

Defence minister Ehud Barak seemed to criticise Mr Netanyahu’s assault on the US. “Despite the differences and importance of maintaining Israel’s independence of action, we must remember the importance of partnership with the United States and try as much as possible not to hurt that,” a statement from his office said.