By Arshad Mohammed and Phil Stewart
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu appear to have landed in a place neither wanted to be: squabbling about Iran, in public, ahead of a U.S. presidential election.
For the Democratic U.S. president, the dispute risks alienating supporters of Israel in a campaign in which Republican nominee Mitt Romney is eager to drive a wedge between Obama and Jewish voters, and to portray the president as weak.
For Netanyahu, who prides himself on his grasp of U.S. politics, it may further underline the disconnect with his nation's ally over the imminence of the threat from a nuclear-armed Iran and the advisability of an Israeli strike to prevent it.
The U.S.-Israeli rift, among the deepest in recent decades, has bubbled barely below the surface for over a year, but broke into the open on Tuesday.
In recent weeks, Netanyahu had begun demanding that Obama set "red lines" that Iran must not cross in its suspected pursuit of nuclear weapons. Washington has made clear, in not so subtle diplomatic code, that it is not ready to take such a step - and did not appreciate the advice.
Then on Tuesday, Netanyahu went a diplomatic step further, suggesting the United States had no right to try to stop Israel from using force against Iran.
"The world tells Israel 'Wait, there's still time.' And I say, 'Wait for what? Wait until when?'" Netanyahu, speaking in English, told a news conference in Jerusalem.
"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.
Hours later, an Israeli official said Obama had rejected Netanyahu's request for a meeting in the United States later this month - a fact sure to be read as a snub in Israel. The White House disputed that version of events, saying Netanyahu never sought a meeting in Washington and it never rejected one.
WHITE HOUSE DENIES NETANYAHU SOUGHT MEETING
In an apparent effort to smooth over the disagreement, the White House said late on Tuesday that Obama and Netanyahu spoke by telephone for an hour - which would be a long chat for two world leaders.
"President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu reaffirmed that they are united in their determination to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, and agreed to continue their close consultations going forward," the White House said.
While loathe to discuss the dispute, U.S. officials said they have labored to try to stay on the same page with Israel on Iran, with the secretaries of state and defense and the White House national security adviser all making trips to Israel.
The central issues between the two countries are how much time to allow for a possible diplomatic solution to end Iran's suspected pursuit of nuclear weapons, whether a military strike could durably neutralize Iran's program and, if so, whether such a strike should be undertaken by Israel or the United States.
Iran denies that it is seeking nuclear weapons, saying its atomic program is solely for peaceful purposes such as power generation and medical uses.
Middle East analysts said the most likely explanations for Netanyahu's public argument for Obama to set "red lines" are to make a case for an eventual Israeli strike against Iran or to push the United States closer to embracing a military option.
"Even though I think it would be wrong of the president to set red lines, as the prime minister is insisting that he do, nevertheless, it's very important to calm the Israelis down," said Martin Indyk, director of foreign policy studies at the Brookings Institution think tank in Washington.
"The most important person in this regard is Obama himself because he is the president and is therefore the best one to make it clear that he is absolutely true to his word that he has got their backs and he will not allow Iran to acquire nuclear weapons," Indyk added.
"The best way for him to do that is for him to meet with the prime minister and come out and say it again," he said. "It's in the interests of everybody involved to provide Netanyahu with a ladder to climb down at this point and not meeting with the prime minister is a mistake even though it's understandable."
U.S., ISRAELI TENSIONS MAY RISE
Current and former members of the Israeli national security apparatus have publicly argued against an Israeli strike for now and a former chief of the Israel Defense Forces, Dan Halutz, rejected Netanyahu's call for red lines.
"When you have to shoot, shoot. Don't talk. Don't put red lines," Halutz told a Washington think tank.
Haim Malka, deputy director and senior fellow in the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the rift comes at a moment when Netanyahu appears to be losing public support in Israel for a unilateral strike against Iran.
Speaking before the White House issued its statement, Malka said it was not surprising that Obama might not be eager for a meeting.
"Netanyahu used strong language that questioned not just the strategic judgment of the administration but its moral judgment in approaching the Iranian nuclear issue," he said.
"It's hard to imagine that the administration would set up a meeting between the president and Netanyahu after such a strong verbal attack," he added.
However, it is also conceivable the White House might judge it politic to arrange a meeting, if only to quell the impression of a rift and reduce the odds of it becoming an issue ahead of the November 6 election.
Accused by Republicans of showing weak support for Israel, Democrats last week resurrected language in their party platform declaring Jerusalem to be the capital of Israel after Obama objected to its having been dropped from the document.
Negotiations between Iran and six major powers to find a diplomatic solution have gone nowhere and it is conceivable that U.S. and Israeli tensions may rise, particularly as Israel sees its window for a unilateral strike closing.
Patrick Clawson, director of research at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy think tank, said the United States could find itself in a more difficult position if Israel abandoned any thought of a strike on Iran.
"I think what would be worse for American-Israeli relations is if the Israelis say to the Americans: ‘OK, we're not going to strike Iran. We're going to assume you're going to take care of this problem,'" he said.
"Then we get into a situation sometime next year when the Israelis think the Iranians are on the brink of having nuclear weapons and the Americans haven't done anything. That's going to be a really big crisis," he said.
(Additional reporting by Matt Spetalnick; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)