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Netanyahu, Obama meet at White House

By the CNN Wire Staff
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Behind closed doors
  • Obama, Netanyahu met for more than three hours at the White House on Tuesday
  • Earlier, Netanyahu met with leaders of Congress from both parties in a show of solidarity
  • U.S.-Israeli relations hit rough patch after row over future building in East Jerusalem
  • PM: "Connection between the Jewish people and Jerusalem cannot be denied"

Washington (CNN) -- President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met for more than three hours Tuesday evening amid a dispute over Israel's decision to build new Jewish housing on disputed land in East Jerusalem.

The Obama administration has pushed to restart peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians and has called on Israel to stop building settlements on territory it captured in the 1967 Mideast war. Netanyahu's meeting at the White House came the day after he defended his government's plans to build new housing units in East Jerusalem, a move that has strained ties with Israel's largest ally.

Netanyahu got to the White House at 5:30 p.m., and he conferred with Obama for nearly 90 minutes in the Oval Office, from 5:34 to 7:03 p.m.

A White House official said the president then went to his residence and Netanyahu remained at the White House to consult with his staff in the Roosevelt Room.

Netanyahu requested another meeting with Obama, who returned to the Oval Office to meet with Netanyahu from 8:20 p.m. to 8:55 p.m., said the official, who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss details of the meeting.

Netanyahu left the White House at 9:05 p.m. without speaking to reporters at a stakeout.

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The Israeli leader arrived after a show of solidarity with leaders of Congress from both parties, during which he thanked the U.S. lawmakers for their "constant support" and "unflagging" friendship.

"Even though the challenges are immense, our will and our partnership is also immense," Netanyahu said at an appearance with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-California, and House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio.

"We have no stronger ally anywhere in the world than Israel and we all know that we're in a difficult moment, but I'm glad the prime minister is here ... so we can have an open and straightforward dialogue about how we can provide more security for our friends in Israel and do everything we can to make sure that the Iranians have no ability to develop a nuclear weapon," Boehner said.

Pelosi told reporters that Congress speaks with "one voice" on the subject of Israel.

"Together we remain committed to advancing the peace process, preserving Israel's security, responsible sanctions against Iran," she said.

Netanyahu's visit to Washington comes as Israel and the United States find themselves at odds over Israel's plan to build new housing on disputed land in East Jerusalem -- a plan he defended sharply Monday night. Israel's announcement two weeks ago that it plans to build 1,600 apartments in an area claimed by both Israelis and Palestinians came amid an Obama administration push for new Israeli-Palestinian talks, but Netanyahu told the American Israel Public Affairs Committee that "the connection between the Jewish people and Jerusalem cannot be denied."

"The Jewish people were building Jerusalem 3,000 years ago, and the Jewish people are building Jerusalem today," he told AIPAC, the leading pro-Israel lobby in the United States, to prolonged applause. "Jerusalem is not a settlement. It is our capital."

Palestinian leaders have refused to rejoin peace talks until Israel freezes the construction of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. But Netanyahu said "everyone knows" the neighborhoods where the new housing units will be built "will be part of Israel in any peace settlement," and the new construction "in no way precludes the possibility of a two-state solution."

The State Department carefully avoided criticism of Netanyahu on Tuesday. State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley told reporters the United States would continue conversations with Israel and efforts to create "an atmosphere of trust" between Israel and the Palestinians.

"Do we see eye to eye on everything? No," Crowley told reporters at the State Department. "Are we satisfied with the exchange and the seriousness the prime minister has taken our concerns on board? We are. And this is a conversation that has involved the secretary and obviously today will involve the president as well."

Netanyahu met Monday with Vice President Joe Biden and with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who has called the Israeli announcement insulting. In her own speech to AIPAC, she said the U.S. commitment to Israel's security was "rock-solid" -- but added that as "Israel's friend, it is our responsibility to give credit when it is due and to tell the truth when it is needed."

"We objected to this announcement because we are committed to Israel and its security, which we believe depends on a comprehensive peace -- because we are determined to keep moving forward along a path that ensures Israel's future as a secure and democratic Jewish state living in peace with its Palestinian and Arab neighbors," Clinton said.

The United States is Israel's leading ally and provides nearly $3 billion a year in aid to the Jewish state, about three-quarters of which goes to purchase U.S. military equipment. AIPAC has called on the Obama administration to step back from its "public demands and unilateral deadlines directed at Israel," but Clinton defended the administration's call for Israel to stop building in largely Arab East Jerusalem.

Dan Meridor, Israel's deputy prime minister, told CNN's "Amanpour" that construction on the project announced earlier this month would not begin for at least two years, "according to the normal process of planning."

"So this is really not a problem now," Meridor said.

CNN's Charley Keyes and Alison Harding contributed to this report.