Benjamin Netanyahu became the first Israeli prime minister to reject an invitation from the President of the United States to meet at the White House, and he didn't do it through diplomatic channels but by a leak to reporters.
The move was seen widely in Washington and Jerusalem as a personal expression of contempt for this president and very much in character with this prime minister. It is hard to see what he thinks he would achieve by insulting Israel's most important ally and the leader of the world's only superpower.
It's no secret the two leaders have had a rocky relationship and the level of trust between the two has never been very good, but this plunges it to new depths.
Netanyahu has opposed Obama's several peace initiatives, spurned his calls for a settlement freeze, led the Republican opposition to the Iran nuclear deal and even worked to block the president's reelection.
Adding insult to injury, the prime minister's office leaked news of his refusal to meet Obama to the media before telling the White House. Only much later did the Israeli ambassador in Washington say the White House had been notified in advance, something a presidential spokesman quickly labeled "false."
Netanyahu's lame excuse was that he didn't want to appear to be interfering in the presidential elections. That holds less water than a sieve. For starters, he simply could have refused to meet any of the contenders, as he did when he came here four years ago almost to the day. Moreover, he directly plunged into the 2012 elections by giving virtual endorsement to Obama's Republican opponent, Mitt Romney, for whom one of the PM's aides had organized a fundraiser in Jerusalem. Romney subsequently used clips of that meeting and Netanyahu's speeches in his campaign ads.
Maybe Netanyahu saw this snub as payback for Obama's refusal to meet with him when the PM came to Washington a year ago to lead the Republican opposition to the Iranian nuclear pact. At the time the White House said it did not meet with foreign politicians during their election campaigns, and Israel's elections were only two weeks away. Many in Israel and here saw Bibi's address to Congress last year as a campaign speech aimed at voters back home.
Netanyahu's snub of Obama also struck an undeserved blow at his loyal ally and water carrier, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. His cancellation robs AIPAC of the headline attraction for its annual policy conference. Sure, he'll probably speak by satellite hookup, but that's no substitution for a personal appearance to reward the faithful in person for working so hard to back up his efforts to defeat Obama's major foreign policy achievement.
Another factor in spurning the White House invitation is probably snags in negotiations over a 10-year extension of the security aid and cooperation agreement. The current annual aid level is $3.1 billion; the administration is offering an increase to about $4 billion but Netanyahu wants $5 billion. Talks are in later stages, although it is said Netanyahu is miffed that Obama won't meet all of his demands.
The prime minister has threatened to wait for the next president if Obama won't agree to his terms. Vice President Joe Biden in Jerusalem today told Netanyahu that would be a big mistake in light of growing budget pressures in Washington and defense and other spending. With either Donald Trump or Ted Cruz likely to be the GOP nominee, that threat could well backfire on Netanyahu, the self-proclaimed expert on American politics.