WASHINGTON (CNN) - U.S. President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday held their first face-to-face meeting since each took power, confronting a range of potentially divisive issues.
At a pivotal moment in the Middle East peace process, the two leaders met at the White House to discuss, among other things, the endorsement of a two-state Palestinian solution and relations with Syria and Iran.
The issue of Iran's nuclear ambitions has becoming an increasingly urgent issue in recent months. Netanyahu wants a time limit for negotiations relating to such ambitions, with the threat of military action if no resolution is reached. Obama is seen as unlikely to provide a timetable.
Both Israel and the United States believe that Iran is seeking nuclear weapons under the guise of a civilian nuclear energy program; Tehran denies the accusation. Israeli leaders have pointed to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's calls for the end of Israel as a Jewish state, and argue that quick action is needed.
Speaking at an Oval Office news conference, Obama again refused to commit to an "artificial deadline" for Iranian negotiations. But he also warned that he would not allow talks to be used as an excuse for delay while Iran develops a nuclear arsenal.
"I firmly believe it is in Iran's interest not to develop nuclear weapons, because it would trigger a nuclear arms race in the Middle East and be profoundly destabilizing in all sorts of ways," Obama said.
It "is important ... to be mindful of the fact that we're not going to have talks forever. We're not going to create a situation in which the talks become an excuse for inaction while Iran proceeds with developing ... and deploying a nuclear weapon."
He said the United States is not ruling out "a range of steps, including much stronger international sanctions (to assure) that Iran understands we are serious."
Netanyahu emphasized that while "the common goal is peace ... the common threat we face are terrorist threats and organizations that seek to undermine (that) peace and threaten both our peoples."
He called Iran the biggest threat to peace in the region.
The divide between the two leaders - Obama is considered to have a more conciliatory approach to the Arab world than Netanyahu - was dramatically illustrated shortly before their meeting by Israel's decision to begin new construction at a West Bank outpost.
The outpost is Maskiyot, where some families evacuated from Gaza are being resettled, and where several have been living in temporary housing. A government spokesman said the construction's start date and the timing of Netanyahu's trip are a coincidence.
Obama wants such outposts dimantled, along with an immediate freeze on future settlement expansion. Netanyahu wants to allow natural growth in Jewish settlements in the West Bank - for example, allowing children who grow up in a settlement to build a home alongside that of their parents.
Obama also supports the idea of a Palestinian state alongside a secure
Israel. Netanyahu has not endorsed the idea, arguing that Israel needs security guarantees and a clear Palestinian partner for peace talks.
Despite their differences, Obama and Netanyahu agree on numerous key issues, such as U.S. military and financial support for Israel. Obama highlighted his stance during his presidential campaign.
Obama also supports funding for Palestinian entities not controlled by Hamas, which controls Gaza and which the United States labels a terrorist organization.
Before making his trip to Washington, Netanyahu met with leaders of Jordan and Egypt, viewed as potential partners in the effort to bring peace to the region.
Obama will host Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak on May 26, and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas on May 28.
He is also scheduled to deliver a long-awaited speech on relations between the United States and the Muslim world in Cairo, Egypt, on June 4.
Some Palestinian leaders have expressed hope that Netanyahu, under pressure from the new U.S. administration, may soon choose to accept the principle of a two-state solution.
"If, in fact, Mr. Netanyahu were to make an unequivocal statement about acceptance of this as a solution concept, then he should immediately be asked to begin, immediately, to implement Israel's other obligations under the road map," said Salam Fayyad, Palestinian prime minister.
Monday's meeting between Obama and Netanyahu, however, was largely expected to be a chance for the two sides to discuss their positions rather than iron out differences.
Aides on both sides stressed that each leader views the other as a friend in peace efforts.
– CNN's Paula Hancocks contributed to this report