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WASHINGTON (AP) — In a strikingly sharp public rebuke, the Obama administration warned Israel on Wednesday that plans for a controversial new housing project in east Jerusalem would distance Israel from "even its closest allies" and raise questions about its commitment to seeking peace with Palestinians.

The harsh criticism came just hours after President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met at the White House. Obama spokesman Josh Earnest said the president raised his concerns about the construction project with Netanyahu, though the two leaders made no mention of the matter in their public comments to reporters.

"This development will only draw condemnation from the international community," Earnest said. "It also would call into question Israel's ultimate commitment to a peaceful negotiated settlement with the Palestinians."

The new 2,500 unit project is contentious because it would complete a band of Jewish areas that separate Jerusalem from nearby Bethlehem. The U.S. has repeatedly criticized Israeli construction in east Jerusalem, casting it as damaging to efforts to secure an elusive peace accord with the Palestinians.

The White House also condemned what it called the occupation of residential buildings in the east Jerusalem neighborhood of Silwan. Earnest called the occupation "provocative" and said it would "escalate tensions at a moment when those tensions have already been high."

Appearing before reporters earlier Wednesday, Obama and Netanyahu betrayed little of the anger projected by the White House spokesman, as well as officials at the State Department. While the two leaders have long had a tense relationship, each took a polite and cordial tone in their brief public remarks.

President Barack Obama meets with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Oval Office of th …

Still, areas of discord were evident, most notably Obama's frustration with Palestinian civilian deaths during the summer war in Gaza and Israel's wariness of U.S.-led nuclear negotiations with Iran.

Sitting alongside Netanyahu, Obama said leaders must "find ways to change the status quo so that both Israel citizens are safe in their own homes, and schoolchildren 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."

More than 2,100 Palestinians — the vast majority of them civilians — and more than 70 Israelis were killed during the 50-day war in Gaza.

Officials said much of Obama and Netanyahu's private discussions centered on Iran. The U.S. and its negotiating partners — Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China — have until Nov. 24 to reach a deal with Iran on its nuclear program, and all sides say significant gaps remain.

The West suspects that Iran is secretly trying to build a nuclear weapon alongside its civilian atomic program, something that Israel sees as an existential threat. Netanyahu reiterated his skepticism that the diplomatic process will be allow Tehran to keep aspects of its program intact.

"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 told Obama. "And I firmly hope under your leadership that would not happen."

Iran insists its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes.

Politics & GovernmentForeign PolicyBarack ObamaIranIsrael

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