Middle East

Obama, Netanyahu: Great challenges in Middle East

In this Oct. 1, 2014 file photo President Barack Obama meets with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington.

In this Oct. 1, 2014 file photo President Barack Obama meets with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington.  (AP)

President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pressed each other politely but firmly Wednesday to address areas of tension in their relationship, with the U.S. president calling for an end to Palestinian civilian deaths and the Israeli leader warning of the consequences of leaving Iran with nuclear capabilities.

As Obama and Netanyahu opened their meeting in the Oval Office, Israeli officials announced plans to move forward with a controversial new housing development in east Jerusalem. Neither leader mentioned the project as they spoke to reporters before beginning their private discussions.

Wednesday's meeting marks the first time Obama and Netanyahu have met since Israel's summer war with Hamas, which killed more than 2,100 Palestinians -- the vast majority of them civilians -- and more than 70 Israelis.

The civilian deaths in Gaza deeply angered U.S. officials, prompting more biting public condemnations of Israel's actions than are typical from the Obama administration.

Sitting alongside Netanyahu Wednesday, Obama said leaders must "find ways to change the status quo so that both Israel 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."

Much of Obama and Netanyahu's meeting was expected to focus on the U.S-led nuclear negotiations with Iran. The U.S. and its negotiating partners -- Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China -- have until Nov. 24 to reach a deal with Iran, though all sides say significant gaps remain.

Israel sees Iran's attempt to build a nuclear weapon as an existential threat, and Netanyahu reiterated his skepticism that the diplomatic process will be allow Tehran to keep aspects of its program intact.

"Iran seeks a deal that would lift the tough sanctions that you worked so hard to put in place and leave it as a threshold nuclear power," Netanyahu told Obama. "And I firmly hope under your leadership that would not happen."

Iran insists its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes.

While Obama and Netanyahu have met and spoken frequently, their relationship has long been riddled with tension. Among the factors contributing to their strained relationship has been Obama's harsh criticism of Israeli settlement building in east Jerusalem, which has continued despite U.S. condemnation.

As Netanyahu arrived at the White House Wednesday, the Jerusalem municipality said it was moving forward with construction of some 2,500 homes in Givat Hamatos. The project is contentious because it would complete a band of Jewish areas that separate Jerusalem from nearby Bethlehem.

The Palestinians claim east Jerusalem, which was captured by Israel, as the capital of a future state. While Israel considers east Jerusalem as part of its capital, the U.S. and most of the international community consider such construction projects to be illegal settlements.

Obama and Netanyahu were also expected to discuss the U.S.-led airstrike campaign against Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria, an effort the Israeli leader said he "fully supports." During a speech at the United Nations earlier this week, Netanyahu sought to draw a comparison between the Islamic State group and Hamas.

Also on the agenda for Wednesday's talks were stalled efforts to forge peace between Israel and Palestinians. The process broke down earlier this year and there's has been little sign that either side is eager to resume talks.

Instead, the Palestinians plan to ask the U.N. Security Council to set a deadline of November 2016 for an Israeli withdrawal from all Palestinian territory occupied since 1967 including East Jerusalem.

The draft resolution, obtained Wednesday by The Associated Press, would affirm the Security Council's determination to contribute to attaining a peaceful solution that ends the Israeli occupation "without delay" and fulfills the vision of two states, "an independent, sovereign, democratic, contiguous and viable state of Palestine" living side by side with Israel in peace and security in borders based on those before the 1967 Mideast war.

The Palestinian quest for Security Council action is likely to face an uphill struggle in the U.N.'s most powerful body where the United States, Israel's closest ally, has veto power and has used it to block many Palestinian-related resolutions.

U.S. officials have long told their Palestinian counterparts that a negotiated solution with Israel is the only way to resolve the conflict.

Netanyahu, meanwhile, has begun calling for more bringing an alliance of moderate Arab states into the peace process, an idea he said he would raise during his meeting with Obama.