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How Is Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu's Washington Visit Playing In Israel?

ARUN RATH, HOST:

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said today he will be representing all Israelis and all Jewish people when he speaks before Congress this Tuesday, at the invitation of congressional Republicans. Netanyahu spoke just before boarding plane to Washington, and U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein, who is a Democrat and Jewish, was asked about his comments on CNN.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "STATE OF THE UNION")

DIANNE FEINSTEIN: He doesn't speak for me on this. He doesn't at all speak...

DANA BASH: Does that bother you when he says he speaks for all the Jews?

FEINSTEIN: Yeah, I think it's a rather arrogant statement.

RATH: That should give you a sense of the political controversy here in the U.S. But how is Netanyahu's visit playing in Israel? To talk about that, we've reached NPR's Emily Harris. She's on the line from Jerusalem. And, Emily, there's been a lot of controversy over how this invitation happened, but there are real disagreements between Netanyahu and the White House on Iran. How controversial is the speech among Israelis?

EMILY HARRIS, BYLINE: You know, it's been quite controversial here, as well, ever since it was announced - and not because of Iran or Netanyahu's stance against Iran, but because of this relationship with the White House and the heightened tensions now between Israel and Israel's superpower backer and closest ally. Today, when Netanyahu left Tel Aviv for Washington, he comments seemed designed in a way to try to communicate that he's above the fray - talking about his trip as crucial and historic and casting it in sort of the existential debate about Israel's future. This is a way that some analysts have said that Netanyahu likes to portray himself.

RATH: So what kind of criticism and what kind of support are you seeing from Mr. Netanyahu in Israel?

HARRIS: Well, Iran is seen as a very real threat here to Israelis across the board, so there's a large degree of general support for him taking a strong stance and pushing for a deal that would somehow guarantee that the paths to a nuclear weapon would truly be closed to Iran. But that rift with the White House is deeply concerning, also, to Israelis. Israelis - a lot of them say they're concerned about alienating Israel's closest ally. And they say that this kind of agreement could have been done quietly and perhaps been more effective.

And there's worry that support for Israel will become a partisan issue in Congress, rather than the bipartisan issue it's been for a long time to. There's been some specific criticism from former top security officials. Over a hundred of them called on Netanyahu to cancel the speech - doing that today. They're saying that Israel's enemy is Iran, not Washington, and this rift is actually making Israel strategically weaker. And, of course, there's been criticism from Netanyahu's political rivals, especially Labor Party leader Yitzhak Herzog, who's trying to unseat Netanyahu in parliamentary elections that are coming up.

RATH: And how is this going to play in those elections? How is the controversy going to play out, then?

HARRIS: Well, you know, it's not really clear. I mean, like I said, Iran is a worry for many Israelis. A lot of voters have told me that they think that any Israeli leader would do the right thing when it came time to deal with Iran - whatever that right thing was - but looking out for Israel's interests. But it will play a role in the election because of this concern over the relationship with the U.S. And it actually plays a role in a very practical level. The speech will be aired live here in Israel, but it will be time-delayed, and election officials will be watching. If it seems like he's electioneering back to the voters at home, the speech, you know, could potentially be stopped.

RATH: That's NPR's Emily Harris in Jerusalem. Emily, thank you.

HARRIS: Thanks a lot. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.