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Kerry Tries To Calm Tensions Over Netanyahu Visit

Secretary of State John Kerry testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, on Wednesday.

Secretary of State John Kerry, apparently hoping to patch a rift sparked by GOP lawmakers' decision to invite Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to address Congress without first consulting the White House, says the administration doesn't want the speech to become a political football.

"The prime minister of Israel is welcome to speak in the United States, obviously. And we have a closer relationship with Israel right now in terms of security than at any time in history," Kerry said on ABC's This Week, adding, "We don't want to see this turned into some great political football."

That's a step back from comments made last week by National Security Advisor Susan Rice, who said Netanyahu's planned address before Congress on Tuesday would be "destructive to the fabric of U.S.-Israeli ties." Netanyahu is also expected to make a speech before the influential American Israel Public Affairs Committee, or AIPAC, in Washington on Monday.

The Israeli leader, who NPR's Jackie Northam says is expected to slam efforts by the Obama administration and five other world powers to reach an agreement with Iran that would limit its nuclear program, also appeared over the weekend to be trying to ratchet down the controversy.

"I would like to take this opportunity to say that I respect U.S. President Barack Obama," Netanyahu said, speaking to reporters at Jerusalem's Western Wall on Saturday. On Sunday, he boarded a plane bound for Washington.

In a separate interview, Kerry said he believed the U.S. needed to give Iran "the benefit of the doubt" as negotiators work toward a long-term nuclear deal, The Associated Press reports.

The AP says: "Kerry stressed that Israel [is] safer as a result of the short-term nuclear pact that world powers and Iran reached in late 2013, and he described that improvement as the 'standard we will apply to any agreement' with the Islamic Republic."

Kerry's remarks came on the same day that South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham told the annual policy conference at AIPAC that he distrusts Iran, saying "they lie, they cheat, they aren't trustworthy, they kill Americans, they would destroy Israel tomorrow if they could."

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