WASHINGTON - Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu bluntly told US President Barack Obama on Wednesday that he must make sure that any final nuclear deal with Iran does not leave it at the "threshold" of being able to develop nuclear weapons.
Even as Netanyahu pressed Obama over Iran in White House talks, the president urged the Israeli leader to help find ways to prevent Palestinian civilian casualties like those inflicted in the recent Gaza war between Israel and Hamas militants.
Netanyahu's visit was clouded by word of Israel's approval of the planned construction of more than 2,600 settler homes in mostly Arab East Jerusalem.
The White House said the matter came up in the leaders' closed-door talks and warned that it would draw international condemnation, "poison the atmosphere" with the Palestinians as well as Arab governments and call into question Israel's commitment to peace.
Meeting for the first time in eight months, the two leaders, who have a history of strained relations, avoided any direct verbal clash during a brief press appearance and even seemed in sync over the fight against Islamic State militants.
But they were unable to hide their differences on some of the issues that have stoked tension between them.
Underscoring Israeli misgivings at a critical juncture in nuclear talks between Iran and world powers, Netanyahu made clear that he remains at odds with Obama about the course of international negotiations with Israel's regional arch-foe.
"As you know, Mr. President, 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 said. "I firmly hope under your leadership that would not happen."
The crux of the US-Israeli disagreement is that Netanyahu wants Tehran completely stripped of its nuclear capability, while Obama has suggested he is open to Iran continuing to enrich uranium on a limited basis for civilian purposes.
While Netanyahu put the emphasis on Iran, Obama was quick to focus on the bloody 55-day Gaza conflict, which ended in August with no clear victor. This followed the collapse of US-sponsored peace talks between Israel and Palestinians in April.
"We have to find ways to change the status quo so that both Israeli citizens are safe in their own homes and school children 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 Obama administration had backed Israel's right to defend itself against Hamas cross-border rocket fire, but also voiced rare criticism of Israeli military tactics as Palestinian civilian casualties mounted.
The conflict killed more than 2,100 Palestinians, mostly civilians, according to the Gaza health ministry. Sixty-seven Israeli soldiers and six civilians in Israel were killed.