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Obama, Netanyahu meet as Iran nuclear deadline approaches

Last Updated Oct 1, 2014 12:02 PM EDT

WASHINGTON -- President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met Wednesday for the first time since a rash of civilian casualties during Israel's summer war with Hamas heightened tensions between two leaders who have long had a prickly relationship.

Much of the meeting in the Oval Office was expected to focus on another delicate issue: U.S.-led nuclear talks with Iran. With a deadline for reaching a final agreement less than two months away, all sides say significant gaps remain.

Netanyahu has long warned the U.S. and the international community that Iran is barreling toward a bomb and using diplomatic openings as a stalling tactic. The Islamic republic contends its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes.

The U.S. and its negotiating partners have tried to push Iran to seek an accord by offering relief from the economic sanctions that have taken a big bite out of Iran's economy over the last several years. Netanyahu warned during a speech at the United Nations on Monday that relieving the sanctions would have a grave consequence: "The world's most dangerous regime in the world's most dangerous region will obtain the most dangerous weapon."

"Iran's nuclear weapons capability must be fully dismantled," he said.

On Wednesday, speaking alongside the president from the White House, Netanyahu warned that relieving the sanctions would leave Iran as a "threshold nuclear power."

"I firmly hope that under your leadership that will not happen," he told Mr. Obama

Netanyahu also compared the extremists with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) with the government of Iran, though he suggested the Iranians, particularly with their nuclear ambition, pose the greater threat.

"Imagine how much more dangerous the Islamic State, ISIS, would be if it possessed chemical weapons," he said. "Now imagine how much more dangerous the Islamic state of Iran would be if it possessed nuclear weapons. Ladies and Gentlemen, Would you let ISIS enrich uranium? Would you let ISIS build a heavy water reactor? Would you let ISIS develop intercontinental ballistic missiles? Of course you wouldn't. Then you mustn't let the Islamic State of Iran do those things either."

"Make no mistake, ISIS must be defeated," Netanyahu added. "But to defeat ISIS and leave Iran as a threshold nuclear power is to win the battle and lose the war."

The Israeli leader arrives in Washington following meetings at the United Nations. During his address at the U.N., Netanyahu also accused Hamas of committing war crimes by using Palestinian civilians as human shields during the 50-day Gaza war that ended Aug. 26. His speech was a response to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas' assertion that Israel had carried out a "war of genocide" during the Gaza fighting.

"We deeply regret every single civilian casualty. The truth is this: Israel was doing everything to minimize civilian causalities," Netanyahu said during his address to the United Nations. "Hamas was doing everything to maximize Israeli and Palestinian civilian casualties."

Israel launched thousands of airstrikes against what it said were Hamas-linked targets in the dense Gaza Strip, resulting in more than 2,100 Palestinian deaths, the vast majority civilians, according to the United Nations. More than 70 Israelis were also killed.

Israeli officials noted that they would make several attempts to contact Palestinian civilians in targeted areas before Israeli bombs fell, dropping flyers, sending text messages, and broadcasting warnings in Arabic. Netanyahu cited those practices on Monday.

"No other country and no other army in history have gone to greater lengths to avoid casualties among the civilian population of their enemies," he said. "This concern for Palestinian life was all the more remarkable, given that Israeli civilians were being bombarded by rockets day after day, night after night."

Still, the civilian death toll in Gaza deeply frustrated U.S. officials and resulted in more biting public condemnations of Israel's actions than are typical from the Obama administration. The president nodded at the concern about civilian casualties during his meeting with Netanyahu on Wednesday.

"We have to find a way to change the status quo so that both Israeli citizens are safe in their own homes...but also that we don't have the tragedy of Palestinian children being killed as well," he said. "And so we'll discuss extensively both the situation in rebuilding Gaza but also how can we find a more sustainable peace between Israelis and Palestinians."

In his speech to the U.N., Netanyahu also sought to equate Hamas with ISIS.

"ISIS and Hamas are branches of the same poisonous tree," he said. "When it comes to its ultimate goals, Hamas is ISIS, and ISIS is Hamas."

The Israeli leader warned Monday that extremism everywhere is part of a cancer that must be stamped out, echoing language recently used by Mr. Obama.

"For the militants, all politics is global, because their ultimate goal is to dominate the world. That threat might seem exaggerated to some since it starts out small, like a cancer that attacks a part of the body. But left unchecked, it grows and metastasizes," he said. "We must remove this cancer before it's too late."

Netanyahu told Mr. Obama Wednesday that Israel "fully supports your effort and your leadership to defeat ISIS."

"We think everybody should support this," he added.

Mr. Obama and Netanyahu last met in March while the Israelis and Palestinians were still engaged in a U.S.-mediated peace process. The discussions collapsed without a peace accord.