Israel's Netanyahu and rival Herzog in first election debate

JERUSALEM (AFP) - A long-awaited debate between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his key election rival, Labour's Isaac Herzog, took place on television Saturday, focusing on diplomatic and security issues.

Despite their repeatedly exchanging barbs in the run-up to Tuesday's general election in campaigning that ends Sunday night, this was their first face-to-face confrontation.

They debated for several minutes in Channel 2's Meet The Press programme.

But Likud chief Netanyahu, seeking his third consecutive term, was not physically in the studio - he appeared by video link.

Netanyahu focused on the sensitive issue of Jerusalem and security.

"Why do they (Herzog and Tzipi Livni of the Zionist Union coalition) condemn construction in Jerusalem? Why do they not support me when I fight to neutralise threats like Iranian nuclear weapons," he asked.

"Why do they refuse to say they support the massive security effort we are undertaking?"

Herzog replied: "Israel's security is more important than everything for us. We know how to defend it and we will know how to do it. The only one who sets Jerusalem at the front of the stage even if no one speaks about its division is Benjamin Netanyahu."

The final two voting surveys released Friday night by private television channels gave the Zionist Union a four-seat lead over Likud.

A large majority of Israelis, both leftwing and rightwing, oppose a divided Jerusalem.

Israel captured the eastern, Arab part of the city in the 1967 war and later annexed it in a move not recognised by the international community.

Netanyahu accused Herzog and Livni of "giving in immediately" under international pressure, and not being able to "protect our national interests".

"The international community knows that you are weak and does not accept your position," Herzog retorted.

"The Palestinians have identified your weakness, and that's why they have undertaken international approaches," he said.

Palestinian membership of the International Criminal Court takes effect on April 1, setting the scene for potential legal action against Israelis for alleged war crimes, in a move that has infuriated the Jewish state.

Interviewed earlier on the show, Herzog said the election was "a choice between despair and hope".

"The Israeli public is fed up with Netanyahu and knows that I'm the only one who can replace him," he said.