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In Benjamin Netanyahu's speech to Congress, a message for Israel

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Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu has embraced the controversy over his planned speech to Congress

The setting will be a joint meeting of the U.S. Congress, but Benjamin Netanyahu's most crucial audience may be the one back home: the Israeli electorate.

The Israeli prime minister's planned speech on Tuesday, two weeks before Israel's general elections, is dominating the country's political discourse, eclipsing other campaign issues.

Because Netanyahu openly defied the White House by accepting a Republican invitation to address Congress and will use the appearance to lobby against Obama administration efforts to reach a nuclear accord with Iran, there have been weeks of hand-wringing about damage to Israel's relationship with the United States.

But the Israeli leader has embraced the controversy, which has kept him and his security-heavy agenda in the public eye, overshadowing voter discontent over other hot-button questions such as the country's soaring cost of living.

Netanyahu's backers have worked hard to portray him as a prescient and courageous figure, likening his warnings on Iran to those of Winston Churchill on encroaching Nazism. His office released video of him in pensive, statesmanlike mode, writing out his speech in longhand.

On the eve of his departure for Washington, the prime minister, whose knack for high drama is acknowledged even by critics, employed a powerful piece of imagery: praying at the Western Wall, hands pressed to the ancient stones as reporters looked on.

With Judaism's most sacred prayer site as a backdrop, Netanyahu reiterated the message he has been delivering for weeks: that the dangers of a nuclear Iran trump what his campaign has characterized as concern over diplomatic niceties.

"I respect President Barack Obama; I believe in the strength of the relationship between Israel and the U.S., and in their strength to overcome differences of opinion," he said. "As prime minister of Israel, it is my obligation to see to the security of Israel."

Even as Netanyahu professed respect for the U.S. president, however, his camp put out a slick new video that pointedly compares his position to that of an earlier prime minister, Levi Eshkol, who in 1967 defied U.S. objections and ordered attacks on Arab forces menacing Israel. The surprise strikes are generally regarded by military historians as having prevented the young state from being overwhelmed by the Jordanian, Egyptian and Syrian militaries.

"In 1967, Arab armies threatened Israel's existence," the Hebrew-language narration intones, with English subtitles lest anyone miss the point. "Levi Eshkol faced an existential decision: Should he launch a preemptive strike? The White House strongly objected.... Would we still be here today if Levi Eshkol had not done the right thing?"

Secretary of State John F. Kerry sought Sunday to tamp down the controversy, saying the administration does not want to see Netanyahu's visit turned into a "political football."

Kerry said he speaks regularly to Netanyahu, including a phone call Saturday, and he said Israel is safer today because of the 2013 interim agreement with Tehran that saw Iran freeze or scale back most of its nuclear development.

"We want to recognize the main goal here is to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon," Kerry said on ABC's "This Week."

As the prime minister boarded a flight to Washington on Sunday, critics in Israel continued to excoriate his judgment, saying the trip amounted to little more than political grandstanding.

"Netanyahu's speech is a dangerous mistake," Isaac Herzog, a co-leader of the opposition Zionist Union, told Israel Radio. Tzipi Livni, a senior opposition figure running alongside Herzog, was quoted by the Ynet website as saying the prime minister was "destroying relations with the U.S. for the sake of a few ballots."

Others took a last opportunity to urge the prime minister to cancel the speech. A group representing 180 former senior military and security officials held a news conference in Tel Aviv on Sunday to publicly call on him to reconsider. One of them was once Netanyahu's army commander.

"I taught Bibi how to reach the target," said retired Gen. Amiram Levine, using Netanyahu's nickname. "And I say, 'Bibi, your navigation is off. The target is Tehran, not Washington.'"

Still unknown, of course, is how this will all play out at the polls. Although Netanyahu is doing all he can to keep the spotlight on the Iranian threat, a weekend poll on Israel's Channel 10 said 56% of voters described the cost of living and social-welfare issues as their greatest concerns. Security issues were a distant second, cited by 27%.

Last month, the state comptroller published a highly anticipated and damning report on the country's housing crisis, which took aim at Netanyahu's government, as well as previous ones, for missteps that had triggered skyrocketing housing costs.

In a response that was widely mocked on social media, the prime minister said the issue was an important one, "but when we speak about housing prices and the cost of living, I do not forget for a moment the matter of life itself. And the biggest challenge we face … is the threat of Iran obtaining nuclear weapons."

That led to dozens of Internet memes with the phrase "Don't forget life itself," in which wedding congratulations and university exams, among other things, are appended with mock concern about the Iranian nuclear program. One showed the late "Star Trek" actor Leonard Nimoy offering his trademark Vulcan salute and admonishing: "Live the long life itself … and remember the Iranian threat."

As the flap has dragged on, Netanyahu's camp appears to have concluded that the U.S. president is so unpopular in Israel that his evident displeasure is an electoral boost. The newspaper Haaretz quoted an anonymous Netanyahu strategist as saying, "Obama is our best campaigner."

Other reports suggested that the prime minister's Likud bloc believes the speech controversy will deliver two additional seats in the 120-seat parliament, or Knesset, and the race is close enough that such a margin matters.

In departing remarks Sunday, Netanyahu referred to the upcoming Jewish holiday of Purim, which commemorates the biblical Esther acting as envoy to a powerful king on behalf of the Jews.

"I am leaving for Washington on a fateful, even historic mission," he said. "I feel I am the emissary of all Israelis, even those who disagree with me — of the entire Jewish people."

At least one Jewish member of Congress, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), found that language troubling. Feinstein said Sunday that she would attend the talk, but that it was "arrogant" for Netanyahu to assert that he speaks for all Jews.

"He doesn't speak for me on this," Feinstein said on CNN's "State of the Union." "The Jewish community is like any other community. There are different points of view."

Several Jewish lawmakers have said they will not attend Tuesday's address.

House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), speaking on CBS' "Face the Nation," stood by his decision to invite Netanyahu without consulting the White House and said interest in tickets to attend the speech has been robust.

"Everybody wants to be there," Boehner said. "The United States Congress wants to hear from him, and so do the American people."

Twitter: @laurakingLAT

Special correspondent Sobelman reported from Jerusalem and Times staff writer King from Cairo. Staff writer Lisa Mascaro in Washington contributed to this report.

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