Jerusalem // The rocky relationship between the US and Israel took a fresh hit on Tuesday over a declined White House invitation hours before vice president Joe Biden’s arrival.
Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s decision not to accept an invitation for talks with US president Barack Obama in Washington later this month “surprised” the White House, which first learned of it through news reports.
Mr Netanyahu’s office defended the decision by saying he did not want to interfere in the US presidential primary elections currently taking place.
“We were looking forward to hosting the bilateral meeting,” said Ned Price, a spokesman for the White House’s National Security Council. “We were surprised to first learn via media reports that the prime minister, rather than accept our invitation, opted to cancel his visit.”
But Mr Netanyahu’s office said Israel’s ambassador to the US had already informed the White House last week there was a “good chance” the prime minister would not make the trip.
Mr Obama and Mr Netanyahu have had a rocky personal relationship, worsened by the Israeli premier’s forceful opposition to the Iran nuclear deal, including in a speech to the US Congress.
But the two have sought to set aside their disagreements in recent months and work out a new 10-year defence aid package for Israel as well as demonstrate that the ties between the two traditional allies remain strong.
Mr Biden, who was due to arrive in Tel Aviv later on Tuesday, will be holding talks with Mr Netanyahu on Wednesday. He is also scheduled to meet Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas.
A previous visit by Mr Biden in 2010 was marred by the announcement of a major Israeli settlement project in annexed East Jerusalem.
That announcement drew a public scolding from Mr Biden and it soured relations with Washington for months.
His visit this time comes with Mr Obama having acknowledged that there will be no comprehensive agreement between Israelis and Palestinians before he leaves office in January 2017.
The White House has said that Mr Biden will not be pursuing any major new peace initiatives during his visit, even though a wave of violence since October has killed more than 200 people.
On Tuesday, Israeli forces shot dead a Palestinian woman who allegedly tried to stab police in Jerusalem’s Old City – the latest in a five-month wave of such attacks. The woman was said to be around 50 years old and from Israeli-annexed east Jerusalem, where Damascus Gate is also located.
Mr Biden and Mr Netanyahu plan to talk about the fight against the ISIL extremist group.
Talks are also expected to include discussions on a new, 10-year defence aid package for Israel, currently worth some US$3.1 billion (Dh11.4bn) annually in addition to spending on projects such as missile defence, illustrating the importance of Israel’s relationship with the US.
But while Mr Obama has resigned himself to not achieving any major breakthrough in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, there have been suggestions he may seek to somehow kickstart peace efforts at a complete standstill for two years.
That has included speculation that Washington could break with traditional practice and support a UN resolution related to resolving the conflict, which Israel strongly opposes.
The Wall Street Journal quoted senior US officials on Monday saying the White House is working on plans for reviving peace talks and for a possible resolution, which could be outlined at Obama’s final appearance at the UN General Assembly in the autumn.
The US has traditionally vetoed resolutions at the UN Security Council opposed by Israel.
“They are worried in Jerusalem that between the time of the election in November and the time that the actual president begins his term of office in January ... president Obama might do certain things that the PM won’t like,” Jonathan Rynhold of Israel’s Begin-Sadat Centre for Strategic Studies said.
* Agence France-Presse, with additional reporting from Associated Press