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.
Iran claims its nuclear program is peaceful.
The Obama administration’s approach has centered on attempting to lead a global embargo of Iranian oil, in addition to the leveling of deep economic sanctions against the Islamic republic.
But Mr. Netanyahu seems bent on going further, appearing on American television on Sept. 16 with calls for more clarity in the collective U.S.-Israeli posture toward Tehran.
“I think it’s important to place a ‘red line’ before Iran,” he said during an appearance CNN.
The remarks set off a firestorm of speculation about whether Mr. Netanyahu was attempting to pressure the Obama administration down a track toward war with Iran.
The administration claims it is on solid terms with Mr. Netanyahu. Michelle Flournoy, a former undersecretary for defense policy at the Pentagon who now is advising the Obama campaign, said Thursday that the administration has “laid out a red line, and that is Iran cannot actually get a weapon.”
“We’ve had extensive, intensive talks with the Israelis,” Mrs. Flournoy said, also on CNN. “There’s no light between us on the intelligence picture. There’s no light between us on the policy objective.”
Some longtime observers, meanwhile, worry that Mr. Netanyahu is attempting to meddle in American election politics.
Three days after the Israeli prime minister’s “red line” assertion, Turki bin Faisal Al Saud, the former Saudi ambassador to the U.S. and former head of Saudi intelligence, said it appeared Mr. Netanyahu was “maneuvering” to impact the race between Mr. Romney and Mr. Obama.
“I remember the days,” Mr. bin Faisal said during an interview with Charlie Rose on PBS, “when the United States was the one that would say, for example, to us in the Middle East, ‘yes or no’ on issues.”
“In 1973, if you will recall with me, when [former Secretary of State Henry] Kissinger was having talks on disengagement with [then-Israeli Prime Minister] Golda Meir and she was obstinate. She wouldn’t agree to withdraw a few kilometers on the Suez Canal or from the Golan Heights,” Mr. bin Faisal said. “What happened? Her government fell. And a very bright young air force officer who was then military attache in Washington, Yitzhak Rabin, very quickly and very precipitously moved from Washington to Tel Aviv and became prime minister and signed the agreement with the United States for the disengagement on the Nile, on the Suez and in Syria.”
“Mr. Kissinger actually was the one who maneuvered that change in Israel,” he added. “The way I see it now is that it is Mr. Netanyahu that is maneuvering to change the government in the United States.”