JERUSALEM – Two days before national elections, Israel's prime minister on Sunday shrugged off international criticism of Israeli settlement construction, charging instead that Iran's suspect nuclear program the real threat to regional security.
Speaking to his Cabinet, Benjamin Netanyahu said he had told a group of visiting U.S. senators over the weekend that "the problem is not building ... The problem in the Middle East is Iran's attempt to build nuclear weapons ... This was, and remains, the main mission facing not only myself and Israel, but the entire world."
Israel, the U.S. and much of the international community believe Iran may decide to produce nuclear weapons, a charge Tehran denies.
Netanyahu, who has repeatedly spoken of the Iranian nuclear program throughout his four year-term and long before, has claimed credit for helping put the issue on the international agenda.
The international community has slapped tough economic sanctions on Iran, also urging Tehran to open its program to international inspectors. While the sanctions have hit Iran hard, its government has refused to cooperate with inspectors or halt its enrichment of uranium. Enrichment is a key step toward developing a nuclear bomb, though it has other purposes as well.
Netanyahu has welcomed the international pressure on Iran, but he has also repeatedly indicated Israeli might attack Iran, alone if necessary, if he concludes that diplomacy has failed. Netanyahu has warned that 2013 will be a critical year in determining whether Iran reaches weapons capability or not.
The final opinion polls ahead of Tuesday's vote have all predicted Netanyahu's hard-line bloc maintaining a solid lead over center-left opponents.
The Dahaf agency, for example, predicted Netanyahu and his hard-line and religious allies would capture 63 seats in the 120-seat parliament. As the largest member of the block, Netanyahu's Likud-Yisrael Beitenu list would be the senior member of the coalition, and Netanyahu would serve another term as prime minister. The survey interviewed 1,000 people and had a margin of error of 3.2 percentage points.
A new hard-line government would likely mean continued deadlock in peace efforts with the Palestinians and further confrontation with President Barack Obama.
Netanyahu has drawn fierce criticism from the U.S. and other allies for building housing for Jewish settlers in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, lands claimed by the Palestinians for a future state. The Palestinians have refused to negotiate while Israel continues to build in the settlements.
In his comments Sunday, Netanyahu signaled that the settlement construction will continue. He also praised the legacy of Ron Nachman, the longtime mayor of the Ariel settlement, who died Friday. Ariel, with nearly 20,000 residents located deep inside the West Bank, is considered a major obstacle to the establishment of a future Palestinian state.
"Today we part from our dear friend who managed to build Ariel into a city of culture, with a university. I regret that he did not have additional years in which to enjoy the fruit of his labors," Netanyahu said. His government recently approved upgrading a college in Ariel to university status.