Herzog questions Israeli leader Netanyahu’s plans to lobby US Congress

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Israel’s opposition leader criticised Benjamin Netanyahu’s plans to lobby the US Congress over Iran next week and accused the prime minister of being evasive and lying to counter sagging poll numbers.

Isaac Herzog, leader of the Zionist Union, said there was no difference between the position of his centre-left party and that of the government on containing Iran’s nuclear programme.

But he dismissed as “spin” calls by rightwing figures that he attend Mr Netanyahu’s speech to Congress, which is widely seen as undermining US-led nuclear negotiations, and a meeting of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.

“No Israeli leader will ever accept a nuclear Iran, but I believe in an open, frank discussion with the US administration and the P5+1 powers [the five permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany], and I think Netanyahu’s speech in Washington is a mistake,” Mr Herzog said in Jerusalem. “I will voice my opinion all too well from here, not from there.”

Mr Herzog was speaking in the context of an unexpectedly close and increasingly rancorous campaign ahead of the snap March 17 election, in which the centre left and Likud are focusing on undecided voters.

The Zionist Union, formerly the Labour party, is running level with or slightly ahead of Likud in opinion polls, and is projected to gain about 23 seats in the 120-seat Knesset. The ruling camp has sought to portray Mr Herzog and Tzipi Livni, his ally, as soft on the Iran talks and other core security issues.

Likud has said that if Mr Herzog and Ms Livni were to form a government, “Hamas will be in the heart of Jerusalem”, a reference to the radical Islamist group that controls the Gaza Strip.

Mr Herzog said Mr Netanyahu had “failed on security” and was avoiding discussion on issues concerning ordinary citizens, including security, high living costs and the country’s growing international isolation.

“The trend is in my favour, and he is skidding down,” said the 54-year-old opposition leader. “The more he comes down in the polls, the more lies he comes out with.”

The remarks were unusually blunt for Mr Herzog, who is touting his military service in the Unit 8200 intelligence corps and ministerial jobs in past coalitions to present himself as a credible technocratic challenger to the three-term prime minister.

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