Netanyahu says Israel needs strong ruling party

JERUSALEM Sat Jan 19, 2013 8:43pm GMT

Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sits after delivering a statement in Jerusalem November 21, 2012. REUTERS/Baz Ratner

Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sits after delivering a statement in Jerusalem November 21, 2012.

Credit: Reuters/Baz Ratner

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Saturday a country with as many enemies as Israel cannot afford a weak ruling party, after polls ahead of Tuesday's parliamentary election showed a slide in his support.

Two polls on Friday showed Israel's right-wing and religious bloc winning a slim parliamentary majority of 63 out of 120 seats, with Netanyahu's Likud-Beitenu group on course to be the largest party in the Knesset, albeit with eroding support.

Iran, Lebanese guerrilla group Hezbollah and the Islamist Hamas movement, which controls the Palestinian Gaza Strip, were all following the election, Netanyahu said.

"(They) want to know one thing, whether the ruling party has grown or shrunk. They want a weak Israel, a divided one and the most challenged country in the world must not be divided," Netanyahu told Channel Two's "Meet The Press".

Netanyahu says dealing with Iran's nuclear ambitions will be his priority. Israel and the West suspect that Iran is working to develop nuclear weapons, an allegation Teheran denies.

The polls in Haaretz and Yedioth Ahronoth newspapers both showed Netanyahu's party winning 32 seats, its poorest predicted showing so far and some 10 seats fewer than Likud and Yisrael Beitenu took in 2009 when they ran separately.

Despite the slippage in polls, Netanyahu is still in prime position to secure a third term in office. But a relatively weak showing at the ballot box would make him more susceptible to the demands of his prospective coalition partners.

No one party has ever won a majority in a parliamentary election in Israel and Netanyahu's government would have to rely on smaller parties for its survival.

Those parties are likely to include Netanyahu's natural allies, the fiercely pro-settler Bayit Yehudi (Jewish Home) which has been surging in the polls and ultra-Orthodox Shas and United Torah Judaism.

Netanyahu may also face more pressure from abroad, with international condemnation growing over the expansion of Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem - land the Palestinians want for a state, along with the Gaza Strip.

The Palestinians say Israeli settlements, deemed illegal by most world powers, will deny them a viable state.

But in newspaper interviews published on Friday, Netanyahu said he would not give in to calls to halt or reverse his settlement drive and said a strong ruling party would be better able to deal with international pressure.

Israeli commentators said Netanyahu might seek a partnership with at least one centrist party to bring a more moderate voice into his cabinet and try to allay international concerns.

(Writing by Maayan Lubell; Editing by Jason Webb)

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