The State Department confirmed late Wednesday that Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton will meet in New York on Thursday with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu after he delivers a speech to the U.N. General Assembly likely to focus heavily on the threat of a nuclear-armed Iran.
The meeting, which arrives amid heightened concern in Washington about the possibility that Israel is preparing a pre-emptive military strike against Iran, rounds out a week in which Mrs. Clinton has taken the lead for the Obama administration in connecting face to face with Middle Eastern leaders after the widespread anti-U.S. demonstrations that swept the region.
While past U.S. presidential election years have seen incumbents from both sides of the aisle avoid the hectic schedule — and sensitive politics — associated with such high-level U.N. meetings, Mr. Obama has faced harsh criticism for opting to personally avoid them this week.
In his place, Mrs. Clinton has met with, among others, Presidents Mohammed Morsi of Egypt, Asif Ali Zardari of Pakistan and Mohammed el-Megaref of Libya — three nations in which the anti-U.S. demonstrations tied to the recent YouTube clip denigrating Islam’s Prophet Mohammad were the fiercest this month.
While Mr. Obama gave a speech to the U.N. General Assembly on Tuesday, Republican critics and several media outlets have pounced on Mr. Obama’s decision to avoid the face-to-face meetings with other leaders since then.
Early in the week, Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney asserted that the recent wave of anti-U.S. protests, and particularly the death of a U.S. ambassador and four other Americans on Sept. 11 in Libya, increased the need for such meetings, especially with Mr. Netanyahu, the closest U.S. ally in the Middle East.
The White House has staunchly defended Mr. Obama’s decision not to partake and instead to make only a brief visit to the United Nations — an approach the New York Times described in a news story as “something like drive-by diplomacy.”
Mr. Obama’s choice prompted Reuters to run a headline saying, “In Obama’s trip to New York, there’s Whoopi but no ‘Bibi’” — a reference to the president’s willingness to appear on the ABC talk show “The View” but not for a meeting with the Israeli prime minister.
Greta Van Susteren, a conservative commentator on Fox News, went one further, posting on her blog the question: “Is Hillary Clinton Really the President?”
Some of the media reports have suggested Mr. Obama’s schedule is too full with domestic issues and campaigning for re-election. Other world leaders have skipped the action in New York this week for similar reasons.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who made headlines going into the week with suggestions that he would focus part of a U.N. speech on the controversy surrounding a recent “Innocence of Muslims” film clip, ultimately canceled his trip to New York, citing a busy domestic schedule and preparations for his political party’s upcoming convention in Turkey.
On Monday, White House press secretary Jay Carney spent a good portion of his daily press briefing playing down Mr. Obama’s decision.
With specific regard to Mr. Netanyahu, Mr. Carney said Mr. Obama and the Israeli prime minister were just not going to be in New York on the same days. He added that Mr. Obama “just recently had a conversation with Prime Minister Netanyahu that lasted more than an hour, I believe, and that was just one in countless conversations that they’ve had.”
Mr. Carney reminded reporters that Mr. Obama “has met with and spent time on the phone with Prime Minister Netanyahu more than with any leader since he took office, and that is reflective of the importance of and the closeness of the relationship between the United States and Israel.”
Tension in the relationship has centered on the extent to which Mr. Netanyahu and Mr. Obama see eye to eye on the best way to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.