Within hours after President Barack Obama turned down Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's request to meet on the sidelines of a United Nations General Assembly gathering in New York, White House officials were working on damage control for Obama's re-election campaign.
By late Tuesday, the White House made sure media outlets were fully informed the two leaders had spent “an hour-long phone call” discussing the Iranian nuclear threat. The call, framed as “part of their ongoing consultations,” nevertheless was unplanned and clearly was a response to the instant coverage of Obama's rejection of Israel's “greatest ally.”
It did nothing to hide Obama's cold response to Israel's routine request for a meeting on the sidelines of the upcoming United Nations General Assembly gathering. It will be the first time an Israeli head of state will attend the gathering, in fact, without meeting with an American counterpart.
The White House attempted to spin the matter with a denial that any formal offer for a meeting had been made:
"Contrary to reports in the press, there was never a request for Prime Minister Netanyahu to meet with President Obama in Washington, or was a request for a meeting ever denied,” the statement read.
But in the carefully worded statement, White House officials also sidestepped the issue of Israel's request for a meeting at another venue.
Republican Senators who had already expressed “surprise and disappointment” at initial reports of Obama's rebuff, pounced the White House statement and its follow-up – a report by Fox News who quoted Israeli sources that said Netanyahu had offered to travel to Washington for the convenience of the president, but that Obama's staff insisted his schedule was too tight for a meeting.
Obama is scheduled to appear at the United Nations on September 24 and leave the next day. Netanyahu arrives in New York later in the week.
"If these reports are true, the White House's decision sends a troubling signal to our ally Israel about America's commitment at this dangerous and challenging time, especially as Iran continues to work actively toward developing a nuclear weapons capability,” U.S. Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham told Fox News.
Former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton went farther, saying he was “astounded that [Obama] cannot find the time. I don't see it so much as a snub as a horrible, substantive mistake in American foreign policy.”
Tensions between the sides have been high lately over perceptions of Iran’s nuclear program and how it should be dealt with. On Monday the two sides sparred over remarks made by Clinton about setting “red lines” for Iran regarding its nuclear program.
The issue of the Iranian nuclear threat to the Middle East -- as well as to the rest of the world, is growing. Deputy Chief of Staff, Major General Yair Naveh, warned on Tuesday that there is a growing chance of regional war. “The terror along the borders is becoming bigger and bigger and there are activities going on in Syria, therefore the fear of deterioration is increasing,” Naveh said during a conference of school principals in Jerusalem. “The borders with Syria and Egypt, which are becoming active, are causing the chances of war to go up,” he added.
Iran's elite Revolutionary Guards have been actively assisting the government troops supporting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in the raging civil war against opposition forces across Israel's northern border, as well as providing weaponry and financial aid to the Hizbullah terrorist organization in Lebanon. To Israel's south, Iran has also been generously funding, training and equipping the Hamas, Islamic Jihad and other terrorist organizations.