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Netanyahu says ‘moral obligation’ to warn of Iran deal despite US rift

Israeli prime minister is due to address Congress on Tuesday in appearance that has exposed tensions with White House

Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu insisted Monday that his upcoming address to Congress is not aimed at disrespecting President Barack Obama, but he continued to assail the U.S. leader over a bid for a nuclear deal with Iran that Netanyahu characterized as a threat to his country's survival.

"I have a moral obligation to speak up in the face of these dangers while there is still time to avert them," Netanyahu said during an address to a pro-Israel lobbying group in Washington.

As Netanyahu spoke, Secretary of State John Kerry was opening a new round of talks with Iran in Geneva aimed at reaching a framework nuclear deal ahead of a late March deadline.

Netanyahu's visit to Washington has exposed deep tensions with the White House. The centerpiece of his trip is an address Tuesday to Congress that was arranged by Republicans without authorization from the Obama administration.

In his remarks on Monday at the annual policy conference of the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), Netanyahu suggested that Obama did not understand the depth of Israeli concerns about Iran's pursuit of a nuclear bomb.

"U.S. leaders worry about the security of their country," he said. "Israeli leaders worry about the survival of their country. "

Despite his sharp rhetoric, Netanyahu declared that the relationship between the U.S. and Israel remains strong. "Reports of the demise of the Israeli-U.S. relationship is not only premature, they're just wrong," Netanyahu said. "Our alliance is stronger than ever."

Analysts say Netanyahu's speech to Congress can be seen through the prism of both domestic and international politics.

With Israeli elections due in just two weeks' time, Netanyahu is trying to burnish his national security credentials to offset political issues at home that present a potential political liability. Netanyahu's address, which has been touted as the "speech of his life" can be seen to be an attempt to "shift the conversation away from his own household," said Daniel Levy, a former Israeli peace negotiator in government of Ehud Barak and now an analyst with the European Council on Foreign Relations.

Meanwhule, as the U.S. and five world powers and Iran inch closer towards a deal over Tehran's nuclear program, the Israeli prime minister, who opposes the contours of a deal as they appear now based on recent leaks, may see the U.S. Congress as his last hope in quashing any such agreement. 

Netanyahu has long been suspicious of Obama's negotiations with Iran, fearing the U.S. and its negotiating partners are prepared to leave Tehran on the cusp of developing a nuclear weapon — even though the Isaeli PM's owm time frame has been disputed, even by his own security establishment. Iran for its part has always denied that it is seeking such weaponry.

But Netanyahu has stepped up his public criticism as the parties inch closer to a self-imposed March deadline.

U.S. and Israeli officials have reported progress on a deal that would freeze Iran's nuclear program for 10 years but allow it to slowly ramp up in the later years of an agreement. Netanyahu has vigorously criticized the contours of such an agreement, saying it suggests the U.S. and its partners have "given up" on stopping Iran from being able to get a bomb.

Netanyahu's position has many supporters in Congress, especially among Republicans. Until now, however, legislative efforts to institute any new U.S. sanctions against Iran, which both Iran and the Obama administration say would kill any possibility of a deal, have been put on hold in Congress, with Senate Democrats preferring to let diplomacy to first run its course.

So while Netanyahu has his allies in the U.S., Levy said the speech might risk “turning wavering Democrats against a bipartisan effort.” In a battle perceived as being one between Netanyahu and their own president, he said, “It’s clear who wins.”

As of Monday, 34 Congressional Democrats had indicated that they intended to boycott the speech Tuesday at the time of Netanyahu's AIPAC speech.

A Netanyahu adviser told reporters traveling with the prime minister to Washington Sunday that Israel was well aware of the details of the emerging nuclear deal and that they included Western compromises that were dangerous for Israel. Still, he tried to lower tensions by saying that Israel "does not oppose every deal" and was merely doing its best to warn the U.S. of the risks.

Kerry warned Israel against releasing "selective details" of the negotiations. "Doing so would make it more difficult to reach the goal that Israel and others say they share," Kerry said.

The U.S. is negotiating alongside Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China.

Netanyahu's remarks at the annual policy conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee were being bracketed by speeches from a pair of senior U.S. officials: U.N. Ambassador Samantha Power and National Security Adviser Susan Rice.

Power spoke warmly of the ties between the longtime allies, saying the relationship "should never be politicized." She defended Obama's pursuit of an accord with Iran and said the president shared Israel's commitment to preventing Tehran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.

"If diplomacy should fail, we know the stakes of a nuclear-armed Iran," she said. "We will not let it happen."

Rice was expected to deliver a more specific rebuttal to Netanyahu's criticism of the U.S.-led nuclear negotiations. She also has been among the most outspoken critics of the prime minister's plan to address Congress, calling the move "destructive" to the U.S.-Israel relationship.

Al Jazeera and The Associated Press

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