After a summer of tension over the war in the Gaza Strip, President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu entered a new season of troubles in their often-fraught relationship with a meeting Wednesday that highlighted hard disagreements over Iran’s nuclear aims and Israeli settlements in a disputed part of Jerusalem.
The Oval Office meeting was the leaders’ first since the collapse of the U.S.-led peace negotiations in the spring and Israel’s 50-day war against the militant group Hamas in Gaza that provoked U.S. concern about civilian casualties. The visit by Netanyahu to a White House consumed by another Mideast crisis — the U.S.-led campaign to combat the rise of Islamic State — only served to underscore the friction between the two leaders.
Hours after the prime minister left the White House, the president’s spokesman denounced Israeli authorities’ decision to greenlight construction of additional Jewish housing units on land the Palestinians claim for a future state.
The U.S. was “deeply concerned,” and the president raised the issue in his meeting with Netanyahu, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said.
“This step is contrary to Israel’s stated goal of negotiating a permanent status agreement with the Palestinians, and it would send a very troubling message if they were to proceed with tenders or construction in that area,” he said.
The U.S. considers the new development, along with another “occupation” of a residential building in a Palestinian neighborhood in Jerusalem, “provocative acts,” Earnest said.
The U.S. has long opposed Israeli settlements in Palestinian territory, yet the hard condemnation coming so soon after the private meeting between the leaders showed that little of the tension between the two allies had eased.
Obama delivered a pointed message in remarks afterward, revisiting his concern about civilian deaths in the summer conflict. By United Nations estimates, seven weeks of fighting left more than 2,100 Palestinians dead, most of them civilians, and destroyed more than 17,000 homes. On the Israeli side, 72 people were killed, 66 of them soldiers.
“We have to find ways to change the status quo so that both Israeli citizens are safe in their own homes and schoolchildren in their schools from the possibility of rocket fire, but also that we don’t have the tragedy of Palestinian children being killed as well,” Obama said.
The face-to-face exchange was pointed, but polite, and not the most contentious between two men who have a history filled with insults — one caught by a live microphone, several implied — and awkward encounters. Obama touted the nations’ “unbreakable bond.”
Using one of several alternate names for the Islamic State militants, Netanyahu said “Israel fully supports your effort and your leadership to defeat ISIL. We think everybody should support this.”
However, seated next to the president in the Oval Office, Netanyahu raised concern about another issue: Iran He pressed Obama to not make concessions as nuclear talks near a November deadline. The prime minister cautioned Obama to not leave Iran with the capability to build weapons.
“I firmly hope that under your leadership that wouldn’t happen,” he told Obama.
Obama has said that the U.S. will not allow Iran to develop a nuclear weapon, but is willing to allow Iran a nuclear program for peaceful purposes.
Netanyahu’s visit was a somewhat routine stop after his appearance at the United Nations General Assembly, where he carried the same message on Iran in a speech also designed to appeal to American conservatives.
“Make no mistake — ISIS must be defeated,” he said at the U.N., referring to Islamic State. “But to defeat ISIS and leave Iran as a threshold nuclear power is to win the battle and lose the war.”
He also warned of being duped by Iran’s “smooth-talking” president and foreign minister.
“This is Netanyahu telling the president he should not leave Iran as a threshold nuclear power in his term,” said Nathan Sachs, a fellow at the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution. “There is fear among Republicans and the Israelis that Obama’s main goal is to kick the can down the road for the next president.”
On Wednesday, Netanyahu called the effort to block Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon the “more important” battle.
Earnest said the dispute came up in the meeting, but did not describe the discussion.
“Creating a nuclear arms race in that region of the world would be terribly destabilizing and would not be in the broader national security interests of our friends and allies and partners in the region, and it certainly wouldn’t be in the national security interests of the United States,” Earnest said.