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Netanyahu departs for 'historic' US trip, as ex-Mossad chief criticises approach to Iran

The Israeli premier is travelling to the US to try and halt a deal on the Iranian nuclear issue
Netanyahu reacts before praying at the Western Wall in the Old City of Jerusalem on 28 February (AFP)

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu headed to Washington on Sunday on what he said was a "historic" mission to try and stop a nuclear deal with Iran, an AFP correspondent said.

The controversial 48-hour visit will see the Israeli leader addressing a joint session of the US Congress in a bid to garner last-minute support to halt an emerging world deal with Iran over its nuclear programme, in a move which has infuriated the White House. 

But Netanyahu, who will also address the annual policy conference of the pro-Israel AIPAC lobby, has refused to back down. 

"I'm going to Washington on a fateful, even historic, mission," he told reporters on the tarmac at Ben Gurion airport near Tel Aviv shortly before his plane took off. 

"I feel deep and sincere concern for the security of Israel's citizens and for the fate of the state and of all our people," he said. 

"I will do everything in my power to ensure our future."

Netanyahu will address AIPAC on Monday before heading to Capitol Hill on Tuesday after which he will fly home. 

Israel believes Iran and world powers are likely to reach a deal that eases international sanctions on Tehran without applying sufficiently stringent safeguards to stop it developing nuclear weapons.

However, on Saturday a former head of Israeli intelligence told local daily Ynet news that Netanyahu had caused his country “strategic damage” on Iran.

“The person that has caused Israel the most strategic damage when it comes to the Iranian issue is the prime minister,” said Meir Dagan, who served as Mossad chief between 2002 and 2010.

Dagan said a “nuclear Iran is a reality Israel won’t be able to come to terms with” and lauded Israel for having aided initial sanctions against Tehran to limit their capacity in developing nuclear arms.

But he said Netanyahu had tried to go “one step further” and had turned the “Iranian problem into Israel’s problem,” meaning that international powers believed if the Iran did develop nuclear weapons then Israel would “deal with it”.

The former Mossad chief said Netanyahu’s lobbying on the issue had been too narrow by focusing exclusively on the Americans.

“Netanyahu is focusing all his efforts on the Americans. He’s not reaching out to the other countries. He should have gone to see (Germany’s Angela) Merkel, (the UK’s David) Cameron, (France’s Francois) Hollande and (Russia’s Vladimir) Putin, who he claims to be friends with, and the Chinese. By behaving in the way he is towards the US administration he is single-handedly motivating the Americans into rushing to reach an agreement.”

“If we are at odds with the White House, we could lose (their) protection and, within a short space of time, find ourselves facing international sanctions,” he added.

Netanyahu's trip to the US comes just four weeks before a 31 March deadline for a political framework if a deal is to be struck between international powers and Iran, with negotiators intending to pin down the final technical details by 30 June.

The visit also comes just two weeks before a 17 March general election in Israel where Netanyahu is hoping to be re-elected for a third consecutive term in office.