By Dan Williams
JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu condemned on Sunday the framework Iranian nuclear agreement being sought by international negotiators, saying it was even worse than his country had feared.
Israel has mounted what it terms an "uphill battle" against an agreement that might ease sanctions on the Iranians while leaving them with a nuclear infrastructure with bomb-making potential. Tehran says its nuclear program is peaceful.
"This deal, as it appears to be emerging, bears out all of our fears, and even more than that," Netanyahu told his cabinet in Jerusalem as the United States, five other world powers and Iran worked toward a March 31 deadline in Lausanne, Switzerland.
Noting advances made by Iranian-allied forces in Yemen and other Arab countries, Netanyahu accused the Islamic republic of trying to "conquer the entire Middle East" while moving toward nuclearization.
"The Iran-Lausanne-Yemen axis is very dangerous to humanity, and must be stopped," he said.
Netanyahu's campaigning against the nuclear negotiations crested on March 3 with his speech to the U.S. Congress at the invitation of its Republican speaker, John Boehner, that angered President Barack Obama and many fellow Democrats.
The right-wing prime minister, who won a fourth term in a March 17 election, said on Sunday he had spoken to senior U.S. lawmakers from both parties "and heard from them about the steadfast, strong and continuous bipartisan support for Israel".
Strategic Affairs Minister Yuval Steinitz, the Israeli official who has been spearheading efforts to lobby world powers against the Iran deal, voiced cautious hope that the negotiations would collapse as they have in the past.
"We may still have a chance. We are not alone. There are still great doubts in the United States as well as in France, even in England," Steinitz told Israel Radio, referring to disputes with Iran over the scope of nuclear projects it might be allowed to retain.
But Steinitz said Israel, which is not a party to the talks and whose hardline demands have not been welcomed in Western capitals, was in an "uphill battle".
Another senior Israeli official, security cabinet minister Gilad Erdan, saw a "good chance" of the powers and Iran reaching a framework deal by the Tuesday deadline, after which they would turn to the end-of-June target date for a comprehensive accord - a final stretch in which more counter-lobbying could be mounted.
"This is not over yet. There’s the Congress, and also the players involved in the negotiations themselves have not agreed on all terms," Erdan told Israel's Army Radio. "There is still a great amount of room in which to operate diplomatically before the final accord."
(Reporting by Dan Williams; Editing by Jeffrey Heller and Susan Thomas)