President Barack Obama shakes hands with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, Monday, Nov. 9, 2015. The president and prime minister sought to mend their fractured relationship during their meeting, the first time they have talked face to face in more than a year. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)
2015: Obama meets with his least favorite ally
02:58 - Source: CNN

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An aide to Obama said that Netanyahu's office had requested a sit-down between the two leaders

Netanyahu is scheduled to meet with Vice President Joe Biden in Jerusalem on Wednesday

Washington CNN  — 

The White House said Monday it was “surprised” to learn through press reports that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had declined an invitation to meet President Barack Obama later this month in Washington.

An aide to Obama said that Netanyahu’s office had requested a sit-down between the two leaders on March 17 or 18, and that the White House responded two weeks ago offering March 18 as a meeting date. That’s just ahead of Obama’s planned trip to Cuba.

“We were looking forward to hosting the bilateral meeting, and we were surprised to first learn via media reports that the Prime Minister, rather than accept our invitation, opted to cancel his visit,” said National Security Council spokesman Ned Price. “Reports that we were not able to accommodate the Prime Minister’s schedule are false.”

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On Tuesday, Netanyahu’s office offered more details on the turn of events, writing in a statement that Israel’s Ambassador to the United States, Ron Dermer, had informed the White House in a conversation last week that a meeting might not be possible.

“Dermer expressed the willingness of Prime Minister Netanyahu to meet with President Obama, if he decides to travel to Washington,” an official in the Prime Minister’s Office said. “However, Dermer also informed the President that there was a high probability that the Prime Minister will not make it to Washington.”

Netanyahu’s visit would have coincided with the annual American Israel Public Affairs Committee conference, a meeting of pro-Israel advocates in Washington where Netanyahu often speaks. His office indicated Monday he would deliver remarks to the conference via video conference instead.

“The Prime Minister decided not to travel to Washington at this time, at the height of the U.S. primary elections,” the Israeli offiicial said. “The Prime Minister appreciates the willingness of President Obama to meet with him in Washington on the Friday before the conference, before the President’s trip to Cuba.”

Several 2016 candidates are expected to speak at AIPAC and had requested meetings with Netanyahu – a scenario that could appear like intervention into domestic politics.

Netanyahu is scheduled to meet with Vice President Joe Biden in Jerusalem on Wednesday as part of the VP’s tour of the Middle East. He will be stopping in Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Amman, along with Israel and the West Bank. Prior to his departure, officials said Biden carried with him no major peace initiatives for his time in the region.

Obama and Netanyahu have had an icy relationship that reached its nadir one year ago when Netanyahu traveled to Washington to lobby against Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran, including addressing the Republican-controlled House of Representatives. During his visit, the White House declined to schedule a meeting between the two leaders, saying the Israelis broke protocol by not consulting with the administration before traveling to the U.S. capital.

Obama and Netanyahu did meet in November. During brief remarks during their session, Obama acknowledged their rocky past over Iran.

“It is no secret that the Prime Minister and I have had a strong disagreement on this narrow issue, but we don’t have a disagreement on the need to make sure that Iran does not get a nuclear weapon and we don’t have a disagreement about the importance of us blunting destabilizing activities that Iran may be taking,” he said.