WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama and Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in the midst of a public disagreement about how to stop Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons, won't meet in person when the Israeli leader comes to the United States later this month, a White House official said Tuesday.
National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor labeled as inaccurate reports in the Israeli press that Obama refused to meet with Netanyahu during the opening session of the United Nations General Assembly in New York.
"They're simply not in the city at the same time," Vietor said in an emailed response to questions.
The Israeli government was told Obama's schedule didn't allow time for a meeting with Netanyahu, according to an Israeli official.
The dueling messages about the meeting followed Netanyahu's warning earlier Tuesday that the U.S. has no "moral right" to restrain Israel from attacking Iran's suspected nuclear weapons program as long as it doesn't set any "red lines" for Iran's nuclear program.
The statement exposed a deepening political rift between the two longtime allies over a crucial national security issue.
Obama and Netanyahu "are in frequent contact" and Netanyahu will meet with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and other senior officials during the visit, Vietor said.
The Israeli official, who asked not to be identified because he wasn't authorized to speak on the matter, said that Israel approached the White House two weeks ago to see if it would be possible for Netanyahu to meet Obama, as he has on every other visit to the U.S.
The response was that the president's schedule wouldn't permit a meeting, the official said today in a telephone interview. Obama is in the middle of campaigning for a second term in the Nov. 6 election.
Obama will be at the U.N. on Sept. 24-25 and Netanyahu won't arrive until later in the week, Vietor said. While the president's U.N. schedule "is not finalized yet," Obama has no planned bilateral meetings with leaders of other nations, he said.
While Netanyahu will be in the U.S. for a short time, the Israeli official said that could have included a trip to Washington to accommodate an Obama meeting.
The newspaper Haaretz was among the media outlets in Israel that reported earlier that the White House rejected a request by Netanyahu for a meeting.
Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak have indicated that, as Iran proceeds with its nuclear work and negotiations stall, Israel is considering a strike against the country's atomic facilities. While Iran says its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes, Israel and the U.S. say the Islamic Republic is trying to build an atomic weapon. Iran's leaders have rejected Israel's right to exist.