Churning up more turmoil in an already tense relationship, Secretary of State John Kerry will not visit Israel Friday, despite a claim by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu Sunday.
The Israeli newspaper Haaretz says senior Obama administration officials said a visit wouldn't be until after Thanksgiving and that a final timeline for the visit hadn't been determined when Netanyahu made his announcement.
The two men have been at odds in recent weeks over the U.S.-led negotiations regarding Iran's nuclear program, with Netanyahu harshly criticizing a rumored agreement that would roll back some economic sanctions currently in place against Iran. But Kerry said Monday nothing the U.S. would agree to would put Israel at risk.
"The prime minister should express his concerns and he has every right in the world to publicly state his position and defend what he believes is in his interest," Kerry said of Netanyahu. "[But] nothing that we are doing here, in my judgment, will put Israel at any additional risk. In fact, let me make this clear, we believe it reduces risk."
Senior Israeli officials told Haaretz Kerry is likely holding off on his visit to focus on the Iran negotiations, set to restart in Geneva Wednesday. Talks were recently derailed due to discomfort from French officials who opposed weakened sanctions and Iran officials who struggled to get the OK from their leadership.
After raised expectations that a deal was in the offing, Kerry and the State Department have been criticized for walking away from an agreement. The Obama administration announced Monday that Wendy Sherman, under secretary of state for political affairs, would be leading the U.S. delegation in Switzerland in the next round of talks – a move experts say is aimed at tamping down expectations.
"I don't think they want to raise expectations again and have them dashed," says Aaron Miller, a vice president at the Wilson Center who served as an adviser on the Middle East to Republican and Democratic secretaries of state. "I think they are simply starting at this [lower] level and if in fact the gaps are narrow and can be closed then I suspect right before Thanksgiving the ministers will convene again."
Miller says just because negotiations soured, it's not an indication a deal can't be struck.
"It's quite stunning that they've made as much progress as they have, and that they may be on the verge of a deal," he says. "In a negotiation you want to show you've gone the extra mile. So the more time it takes tactically sometimes the better off it is."
What's taken many observers aback is how strenuously opposed to the near-deal Netanyahu has been, essentially vowing a strike on Iran unless the parameters change.
"If a deal is signed, he's going to demonstrate that he had no influence and you are going to end up with an aggrieved and angry Israeli prime minister on an issue he views as fundamental to Israel's security," Miller says. "It's going to have all kinds of implications for the U.S.-Israeli relationship, and not good ones."
It's old news that Netanyahu and President Barack Obama don't see eye-to-eye on some things – the Israeli prime minister all but endorsed Obama's Republican presidential rival Mitt Romney in 2012 – but some say the prickly nature of their relationship has deep implications on a variety of issues.
"Trust for Obama and for the path that he's taken is not at a high level, not just in Israel but among a number of our allies in the Mideast," says former Sen. Norm Coleman, a board member of the Republican Jewish Coalition.
"It's so hard for me to comprehend the administration's going to move forward with something that leaves the Israelis angered and feeling undermined," he adds. "If they did, it would be a sad commentary on this administration's efforts to stand with those allies and live by the commitments that past presidents and this president have continually made to Israel."