(Reuters) – In a highly unusual rebuff to a close ally, the White House said on Tuesday that President Barack Obama would not meet Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a U.S. visit later this month, as tensions escalated over how to deal with Iran’s nuclear program.
The apparent snub, coupled with Netanyahu’s sharpened demands for a tougher U.S. line against Iran, threatened to plunge U.S.-Israeli relations into crisis and add pressure on Obama in the final stretch of a tight presidential election campaign.
An Israeli official, who declined to be identified, said the White House had refused Netanyahu’s request to meet Obama when the Israeli leader visits the United States to attend the U.N. General Assembly, telling the Israelis, “The president’s schedule will not permit that.”
White House spokesman Tommy Vietor denied that Netanyahu’s request had been spurned, insisting instead that the two leaders were attending the General Assembly on different days and would not be in New York at the same time.
Netanyahu has had a strained relationship with Obama, but they have met on all but one of his U.S. trips since 2009. The president was on a foreign visit when the prime minister came to the United States in November 2010.
By withholding a meeting, the Democratic president could alienate some Jewish and pro-Israel voters as he seeks a second term in the November 6 election. Republican rival Mitt Romney has already accused Obama of being too tough on Israel and not hard enough on Iran.
The White House’s decision could signal U.S. displeasure with Netanyahu’s intensifying pressure for Obama to set specific red lines on Iran. Obama aides say privately they believe Netanyahu favors Romney, a fellow conservative, although the Israeli leader has been cautious to avoid being seen interfering in the election campaign.
Word that the two men would not meet came on the same day that Netanyahu said the United States had forfeited its moral right to stop Israel from taking action against Iran’s nuclear program because it had refused to be firm with Tehran itself.
Netanyahu has argued 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.