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Netanyahu Insists D.C. Visit Not Intended To Pull Israel Into Partisan Debate

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

A day before a controversial speech in Congress, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told his supporters that he didn't come to the U.S. to play politics. He says he's here because he has a moral obligation to warn people about the Obama administration's negotiations with Iran. In a moment, an Israeli reaction to that. First, NPR's Michele Kelemen reports on Netanyahu's comments today at the annual meeting of the country's largest pro-Israel lobby.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: The enormous room at Washington's Convention Center had the feeling of a political rally.

(SOUNDBITE OF AIPAC POLICY CONFERENCE)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Mr. Benjamin Netanyahu.

(APPLAUSE)

KELEMEN: The American Israel Public Affairs Committee says 16,000 activists are attending this year's conference, and they were on their feet often as Netanyahu spoke. He plans to address Congress at the invitation of the Republicans tomorrow but insists his visit is not intended to pull Israel into a partisan debate.

(SOUNDBITE OF AIPAC POLICY CONFERENCE)

PRIME MINISTER BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: The last thing that I would want is for Israel to become a partisan issue. And I regret that some people have misperceived my visit here this week as doing that. Israel has always been a bipartisan issue. Israel should always remain a bipartisan issue.

(APPLAUSE)

KELEMEN: But citing a long list of Israeli prime ministers who have had disagreements with Washington, Netanyahu says he won't stay silent about the Obama administration's negotiations with Iran, a country he says is threatening to destroy Israel and building, as he describes it, the capacity to develop nuclear weapons.

(SOUNDBITE OF AIPAC POLICY CONFERENCE)

NETANYAHU: The days when the Jewish people are passive in the face of threats to annihilate us - those days are over.

(APPLAUSE)

KELEMEN: The Israeli prime minister says speaking out is his moral duty because while he and the White House agree on the goal - to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon - they disagree on how to get there. The U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power says Washington is open to that kind of debate.

(SOUNDBITE OF AIPAC POLICY CONFERENCE)

SAMANTHA POWER: Debating the most effective policy both within our respective democracies and among partners is more than useful, it is a necessary part of arriving at informed decisions. Politicizing that process is not. The stakes are too high for that.

KELEMEN: Power made a veiled reference to recent reports that the U.S. may agree to an Iranian demand for a so-called sunset clause - that is, easing restrictions on the country's nuclear program over time.

(SOUNDBITE OF AIPAC POLICY CONFERENCE)

POWER: There will never be a sunset on America's commitment to Israel's security - never.

KELEMEN: Power did an effective job papering over U.S.-Israeli differences according to one man in the audience. Still, New York real estate lawyer Aaron Shmulewitz is not convinced by the negotiating skills of the U.S. and the five other world powers at the table.

AARON SHMULEWITZ: There are two levels of expertise and negotiation going on now. I think the Iranians are experts. I think the five-plus-one are not. I think they are being taken for a very bad ride.

KELEMEN: He says he's eager to hear what more Netanyahu will say to Congress and is disappointed by some Democrats who say they won't attend. Other Jewish groups, though, say they don't like what they see as Netanyahu's attempts to shape American foreign policy toward Iran. The editor of the progressive magazine Tikkun, Rabbi Michael Lerner says Americans were misled into a war in Iraq and don't want the same now with Iran.

MICHAEL LERNER: So it's time for Americans to stand up and say, no, Mr. Netanyahu, we are not going to be pushed into another self-destructive and destructive-of-others war when there's a better path.

KELEMEN: His Tikkun Magazine took out a full-page ad in The New York Times saying the Israeli leader does not speak for the majority of American Jews who it says supports the Obama administration's attempts to negotiate with Iran. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.