Much has been written about the friendship between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and presumptive Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney. But on Sunday, it seemed theirs is more than just a friendship: Romney canceled a planned meeting with Labor Party leader Shelly Yacimovich at the last minute, apparently on orders from Netanyahu or someone from his staff.
About a month ago, when Yacimovich was still leader of the opposition, Romney advisor Dan Senor asked the head of Labor's Knesset faction, Isaac Herzog, to arrange for Romney to meet Yacimovich during his visit here. Meeting the opposition leader is standard protocol: When Barack Obama came here during his presidential campaign, in the summer of 2008, he met with then-opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu.
At the height of the recent coalition crisis between Netanyahu and Kadima chairman Shaul Mofaz, Herzog called Senor to warn him that Yacimovich wasn't likely to still be opposition leader when Romney arrived, and he would certainly understand if the Americans canceled the meeting. But Romney's staff insisted it should still take place.
Even after Kadima left the government and Mofaz indeed replaced Yacimovich as opposition leader, Romney's staff said the candidate still wanted to meet with her as well as Mofaz. The preparations went full steam ahead, and were still continuing on Sunday morning, when Yacimovich's media adviser held discussions with her counterparts on Romney's staff about which media crews should attend. They even agreed that Romney and Yacimovich would each give a two-minute press statement but wouldn't answer questions.
But then, moments before Romney was to meet with Netanyahu and about three hours before he was to meet Yacimovich, Senor called Herzog to say that "for reasons of protocol," the meeting would have to be canceled.
Herzog was shocked, and pushed Senor for a fuller explanation. He recalled having read that Senor was a close friend of key Netanyahu adviser Ron Dermer.
"Senor muttered something about how the Foreign Ministry said this violated protocol," Herzog said. "I called the guy at the Foreign Ministry who's managing the visit, and he vehemently denied that this is the ministry's position. I went back to Senor, and he said the U.S. Embassy was opposed [to the meeting]. I called my contacts at the embassy, and they said they aren't involved in the visit at all, and have no information about it.
"I told Senor we're willing to cut it down to a quarter of an hour. He said they have no time. He was speaking to me from the Prime Minister's Bureau, moments before Romney went in to Bibi."
Yacimovich's associates blamed the cancelation on Netanyahu. "This bears the heavy footprint of Netanyahu and his staff," said one. "They pressed Romney to cancel the meeting so as not to elevate Yacimovich's status - especially now, given the economic dispute between Netanyahu and Yacimovich over the decrees the government is imposing on the public."
Netanyahu's media adviser, Liran Dan, declined to respond to this accusation. He said the Foreign Ministry is responsible for coordinating Romney's visit.
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