WASHINGTON - Uncertainty over whether Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu would get a White House meeting this week threatened to undermine the goodwill US President Barack Obama is seeking to foster with an appearance at a major Jewish conference Tuesday.
Though the meeting could still be scheduled before Netanyahu's trip to the US capital is set to conclude on Tuesday, several Jewish leaders said the fact that it was up in the air so close to the visit was alienating to the very Israelis and American Jews the Obama administration is reaching out to.
Obama is set to address some 3,000 Jewish activists from North America at the UJC/The Jewish Federations of North America's annual General Assembly, which opens on Sunday. Netanyahu, who leaves Israel on Sunday, is due to address the audience on Monday, one day before Obama.
The prime minister is currently planning to hold meetings on Capitol Hill later that day before flying to Paris sometime on Tuesday.
His departure time that day has been left flexible so that he could potentially sit down with Obama before or after the latter's GA appearance, sources said.
It would be nearly unprecedented for an Israeli prime minister to be in Washington and not get an Oval Office meeting, but Israeli officials have said Netanyahu intends to come to the US capital whether or not Obama receives him.
Officials in Jerusalem continued to stress that the visit was scheduled solely to allow Netanyahu to address the GA, one of the most important annual gatherings of American Jewry.
A meeting between the two leaders had not been added to the schedule by press time, according to US and Israeli officials.
Several Jewish officials in Washington said they expect a meeting to happen, but they are growing less and less confident as time goes on. Several insiders put the odds of a meeting happening at "50-50."
The White House press office did not immediately respond to a query from The Jerusalem Post for this report.
Even if a meeting does take place, though, some say the damage has already been done.
"Leaving the prime minister of Israel to twist in the wind for three weeks is a surefire way to find himself in negative poll numbers," said one Jewish leader of Obama, whose support among the Jewish Israeli public has hovered in the single digits for months. "They've embarrassed him now in front of his country. When did the prime minister of Israel come to America and not get a meeting with the president? It's crazy."
Obama's appearance also comes at a time of discord between Jerusalem and Washington over the stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace process, which has also left some quarters of the Jewish community concerned about the US-Israel relationship and Obama's approach.
Tuesday's speech, his first to a Jewish audience since taking office, has been seen as a way to mend fences and to reassure Israelis and American Jews of US support for Israel.
The conference brings together Jewish professionals and volunteers from the 157 federations across North America to discuss domestic and foreign policy issues as well as the future of the Jewish community and the federations themselves.
"The White House is realizing they need to be communicating more to the Jewish community and Israelis," said Nathan Diament, director of public policy for the Orthodox Union, describing current "atmospherics fraught with tension" between the US administration and Israel, even if the policy differences aren't great.
"This is obviously an opportunity to try to address the issues, to assuage a lot of the concerns that have developed over the past few months," he said.
Diament assessed that that effort would be hurt if the president didn't make time to meet with Netanyahu.
"If he doesn't have a meeting, most Israelis will see that as a snub," Diament explained. "That will not help. That will undermine whatever Obama says in his speech. It will upset many American Jews."
Still, Diament felt that so long as a meeting happens - no matter how last-minute - it would diffuse those bad feelings.
"I'm assuming they're going to have a meeting. Once they have a meeting, nobody's going to remember when the meeting was decided," he said.
In an opinion piece for the magazine The Weekly Standard, Elliott Abrams, a former deputy national security adviser from the last administration, however, said that the delay in setting the meeting was a negative sign.
"The belligerence toward Netanyahu has been evident all along, but is best shown by the refusal to tell Israel's prime minister whether or not the president will see him this coming week," Abrams wrote.
"The Israelis gave the White House weeks of notice that Netanyahu had agreed to speak, would be in town, and hoped to see Obama. The White House reaction has been to keep him twisting in the wind, with news stories several days before his arrival saying the president had not decided yet whether to see Netanyahu.
"Obama and his 'experts' may think they are reminding Netanyahu who is boss, but they are in fact reminding all of us why Israelis no longer trust Obama - and making closer cooperation between the two governments that much harder."
Still, several Jewish leaders said they believed a meeting would happen because the fallout from its lack - the "tsorris" in the words of one - would be worse than the issues involved in arranging one.
Some Jewish officials did express understanding for the president's hesitancy to meet with Netanyahu, though, characterizing a meeting as something that could complicate the US's peace-making efforts as it would require presidential-level tete-a-tetes with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and other figures to maintain the balance the administration is trying to cultivate.
While Netanyahu's schedule is devoid of any high-level meetings, Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who left on Saturday night for Washington, is set to speak on Monday both with US special envoy George Mitchell and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates.
Barak is also expected to address the GA on Monday. Before his return on Wednesday, he is expected to talk with other senior government and security officials to discuss regional issues such as Iran and the stalled Israeli Palestinian peace talks.
Netanyahu and Barak's trips to Washington come after a problematic visit by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to the region last week, where Abbas and other Arab leaders harshly criticized her for appearing to back Israel on a limited settlement freeze - rather than the full freeze they had been calling for - and thereby favoring the Israelis.
A White House photo-op in those circumstances could intensify that antagonism.
In addition, one Jewish leader in touch with White House officials said that the US didn't want others to think that an Oval Office meeting came for "free," and could simply be assumed whenever a prime minister came to town.
But one Jewish official responded that if the US and Israel are really friends, such meetings would be natural - and questioned whether the White House would decline to meet with Abbas or moderate Arab leaders should they be in town.
Sources have also indicated that the White House felt blindsided by the Israeli assumption that Netanyahu would get a meeting simply by visiting Washington, and still others noted that setting up presidential parleys can be logistically difficult.
"Sometimes it's actually hard to schedule a meeting," Diament pointed out.
Yet several Jewish activists said that, to the extent that mere logistical issues were involved, they highlighted the disconnect between the two sides.
"If you're truly allies and friends, shouldn't this all be easier?" asked one.
Tovah Lazaroff contributed to this report.
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