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US-Israel rift over Iran widens; Obama denies Netanyahu asked for meeting

Ties between the United States and Israel showed new signs of strain, after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu criticized the U.S. for not taking a harder line on Iran. NBC's Brian Williams reports.

Updated at 9:30 p.m. ET: Ties between the United States and Israel showed new signs of strain on Tuesday, after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu criticized the U.S. for not taking a harder line on Iran.

The White House, for its part, denied an Israeli source's claim that President Barack Obama had refused Netanyahu's request for a meeting later this month during the U.N. General Assembly.

"The president arrives in New York for the U.N. on Monday, September 24th, and departs on Tuesday, September 25th," said National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor. "The prime minister doesn't arrive in New York until later in the week. They're simply not in the city at the same time.

"But the president and PM are in frequent contact," he added, "and the PM will meet with other senior officials, including Secretary (Hillary) Clinton, during his visit."

Obama spoke with Netanyahu for an hour by phone Tuesday night, according to a White House statement, during which the two leaders discussed the threat posed by Iran's nuclear program and reaffirmed their shared goal of preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. 

An Israeli official earlier told Reuters on condition of anonymity that Netanyahu's aides had asked for a meeting and "the White House has got back to us and said it appears a meeting is not possible. It said that the president's schedule will not permit that."


Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a news conference Tuesday in Jerusalem where he made threats to attack Iran if the U.S. and other allies don't.

The White House said Netanyahu had not requested a meeting.

Netanyahu, who has met Obama on all his U.S. trips since 2009, has been pushing him to adopt a tougher line against Iran.

He argues that setting a clear boundary for Iran's uranium enrichment activities and imposing stronger economic sanctions could deter Tehran from developing nuclear weapons and mitigate the need for military action.

Related: Iran sanctions exceed expectations but still don't change Tehran's behavior
Related: Iran advancing on nuclear warhead calculations, sources say

In comments that appeared to bring the possibility of an Israeli attack on Iran closer, Netanyahu had earlier taken Washington to task for rebuffing his call to set a "red line" for Iran's nuclear program, which has already prompted four rounds of U.N. sanctions.

"The world tells Israel 'Wait, there's still time'. And I say, 'Wait for what? Wait until when?'" Netanyahu said Tuesday, speaking in English.

"Those in the international community who refuse to put red lines before Iran don't have a moral right to place a red light before Israel," he added, addressing a news conference with Bulgaria's prime minister.

The website of Israel's daily newspaper Haaretz called his words "an unprecedented verbal attack on the U.S. government."
Iran makes no secret of its hostility to Israel, widely assumed to be the region's only nuclear-armed power, but says its nuclear program is purely peaceful.

Netanyahu's relations with Obama have been strained over Iran and other issues, such as Jewish settlement building in the occupied West Bank.

Yuval Steinitz, finance minister of Israel, offers insight on keeping the Israeli economy afloat despite the threat of Iran's nuclear program and a war of words.

But he has never framed his differences with Obama -- who has pledged he will "always have Israel's back" and is deep in a re-election campaign -- in moral terms.

Republican challenger Mitt Romney has accused Obama of throwing Israel "under the bus."

Netanyahu's comments followed U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's remarks on Monday that the United States would not set a deadline in further talks with Iran, and that there was still time for diplomacy to work.

U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said on Tuesday that Washington would have little more than a year to act to stop Iran if it decided to produce a nuclear weapon.

Iran has threatened to retaliate against Israel and U.S. interests in the Gulf if it is attacked, and any such conflict could throw Obama's re-election bid off course.

Netanyahu did not mention Clinton by name but pointedly parroted her use of the word "deadline," saying: "If Iran knows that there is no 'deadline', what will it do? Exactly what it's doing. It's continuing, without any interference, towards obtaining a nuclear weapons capability and from there, nuclear bombs ...

"The sanctions have hurt the Iranian economy but they haven't stopped the Iranian nuclear program," he added. "That's a fact. And the fact is that every day that passes, Iran gets closer and closer to nuclear bombs."

Recent tougher Israeli rhetoric has stoked speculation that Israel might attack Iran before the U.S. election in November, believing that Obama would be forced to give it military help to avoid alienating pro-Israeli voters.

But over the past week, Netanyahu, in calling for a red line, had appeared to be backing away from military action and preparing the ground for a possible meeting with Obama.

Opinion polls suggest that a majority of Israelis do not want their military to strike Iran without U.S. support.

Defense Minister Ehud Barak seemed to criticize Netanyahu's assault on the Jewish state's biggest ally.

"Despite the differences and importance of maintaining Israel's independence of action, we must remember the importance of partnership with the United States and try as much as possible not to hurt that," a statement from his office said.

Reuters contributed to this report.

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