Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a joint news conference with his Bulgarian counterpart Boiko Borisov in Jerusalem Sept. 11, 2012. Netanyahu ramped up threats to attack Iran, saying if world powers refused to set a red line for Tehran's nuclear programme, they could not demand that Israel hold its fire. (POOL/REUTERS)

The deepening dispute between the United States and Israel over how to stop Iran’s nuclear program broke into public view Tuesday, with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu suggesting that the Obama administration did not have the “moral right” to forestall military action.

Netanyahu’s remarks — and a White House decision that President Obama will not meet with the Israeli leader later this month — threatened to further exacerbate tensions between the two allies and possibly push the disagreement over Iran into the U.S. presidential campaign.

In a blistering response to a Sunday statement by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton that the United States is “not setting deadlines” for Iran to abandon its alleged weapons program, Netanyahu said that if no “red line” is established, Iran will continue to pursue an atomic bomb.

“The world tells Israel: ‘Wait. There’s still time.’ And I say, ‘Wait for what? Wait until when?’ 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,” Netanyahu told reporters in Jerusalem.

The administration has pressed Israel to hold off on threatened military action against Iran and has refrained from directly issuing its own military threat, arguing that there is still time to achieve results through diplomacy backed by tightening economic sanctions.

Although international inspectors have cited continuing advances in Iran’s nuclear program and diplomatic negotiations have stalled, U.S. intelligence analysts believe that Iranian leaders have not yet made a political decision to produce a nuclear bomb. Iran has said its nuclear program is solely for peaceful energy purposes.

Disagreement over meeting

Just hours after Netanyahu’s remarks Tuesday, U.S. and Israeli officials acknowledged that Netanyahu had sought a meeting with Obama when they both attend the annual United Nations General Assembly in New York later this month.

“The White House informed Jerusalem that the meeting . . . won’t be possible due to the president’s agenda,” the Israeli Embassy in Washington said of a possible New York meeting.

The White House issued a statement saying that a meeting was impossible because “they’re simply not in the city at the same time.” Obama plans to depart New York immediately after his Sept. 25 address to the General Assembly, while Netanyahu will not arrive to deliver his speech until Sept. 27. Obama and Netanyahu, the statement said, were in “frequent contact,” and Netanyahu will meet with Clinton “and other officials.”

Obama, who will spend only one night in New York, does not plan to meet with any foreign leaders at the U.N. session, according to an administration official who spoke about the president’s schedule on the condition of anonymity.

In a further statement late Tuesday that indicated growing concern over the tensions, the White House said Obama and Netanyahu had spoken by telephone “for an hour tonight as part of their ongoing consultations.” It said they discussed “the threat posed by Iran’s nuclear program, and our close cooperation on Iran and other security issues” and “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.”

A campaign issue?

Administration officials struggled Tuesday not to respond in kind to what they viewed as another in a series of Netanyahu provocations that could affect the U.S. presidential race.

Obama’s foreign policy performance has polled significantly higher than assessments of Mitt Romney, the Republican nominee. Romney’s campaign, seeking gains on national security issues and inroads into a Jewish vote that has traditionally gone heavily Democratic, has portrayed Obama as insufficiently attuned to Israel’s concerns.

“In his first TV interview as president,” Romney said in his Republican convention speech last month, Obama “said we should talk to Iran. We’re still talking, and Iran’s centrifuges are still spinning.

“President Obama has thrown allies like Israel under the bus,” Romney said.

The latest U.S.-Israel back-and-forth began Sunday when Netanyahu said in an interview with Canadian television that Iran would not stop its nuclear program “unless it sees a clear determination by the democratic countries in the world, and a clear red line.”

Although Israel has called before for a “red line” for military action against Iran, it has not spelled out the criteria for it. In the interview Sunday, Netanyahu said he was discussing the issue “right now with the United States.”

U.S. resistant on deadline

Clinton, in an interview released Monday, said “we’re not setting deadlines.” The Israelis, she told Bloomberg News radio, are “more anxious about a quick response because they feel that they’re right in the bull’s-eye, so to speak. But we’re convinced that we have more time to focus on these sanctions, to do everything we can to bring Iran to a good-faith negotiation.”

Other administration officials waved off any suggestion that the United States was prepared to draw a red line for a military strike against Iran, even as it emphasizes that “all options” remain on the table and that the window for a negotiated solution will not stay open forever.

Consultations with Israel have been “incredibly intense and high level,” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Tuesday. “The president’s commitment on this is absolutely firm.”

Netanyahu’s latest remarks came at a news conference with visiting Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borisov. “If Iran knows that there is no red line, if Iran knows that there’s no deadline, what will it do? Exactly what it’s doing. It’s continuing, without any interference, toward obtaining nuclear weapons capability. And, from there, nuclear bombs.”

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak has warned that time is running out as Iran’s nuclear facilities approach a “zone of immunity,” protected in underground bunkers invulnerable to Israeli attack.

But in a reflection of what U.S. officials see as political disagreements within Israel itself, Barak issued a statement Tuesday evening that appeared designed to temper Netanyahu’s remarks.

Despite “certain differences between the stances of Israel and America . . . and the importance of maintaining Israel’s independence of action,” he said, “we must also remember the significance of our partnership with America and do everything possible not to harm this.”

Greenberg reported from Jerusalem.