JERUSALEM Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would win an election if it were held now, an opinion poll showed on Monday as he weighs strategy towards Iran's nuclear program and speculation grows that he will seek a renewed public mandate.
The next parliamentary election in Israel is not due until October 2013, but the right-wing premier signaled on Sunday he was considering moving up the ballot.
A slew of commentators, citing cracks in the governing coalition over formulating a new law that could force ultra-Orthodox Jews to serve in the conscript military, said Netanyahu may opt for an election as early as August or September.
On Saturday, a former Israeli spymaster branded the country's leaders as "messianic", in the strongest criticism yet from a security veteran of threats to launch a pre-emptive war to disable Iranian nuclear sites.
But a poll conducted on Sunday night and published in the popular Yedioth Ahronoth daily showed Netanyahu's Likud party winning 30 of 120 parliamentary seats if a ballot were held now, up from the 27 it currently holds.
Such a result would make him the leader of the largest faction and the likely candidate to form the next government.
"The poll indicates ... Netanyahu has no cause for concern, and he apparently knows it. He is not just going to elections, he's sprinting to them," Yedioth Ahronoth political correspondent Sima Kadmon wrote.
Should Netanyahu lose the support of ultra-Orthodox coalition partners over the conscription issue, he could turn to centrist factions to replace them after the ballot.
No one party has ever won an outright parliamentary majority in an Israeli general election, and the poll indicated that would not change in the next ballot.
According to the survey, right-wing parties would control 61 parliamentary seats compared with 66 at present, giving Netanyahu a governing majority he would likely attempt to widen with centrist factions.
Israel's main opposition Kadima party - now the largest in parliament according to the poll - would drop from 28 seats to 11. The centrist Kadima recently replaced its leader, former Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, with ex-defense chief Shaul Mofaz.
The survey showed the Labour Party, widely expected to gain strength from a wave of social protests that swept Israeli cities last summer, taking 18 seats, a steep rise from its current 8, and becoming the second largest faction.
Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman's ultra-nationalist party Yisrael Beitenu, Netanyahu's biggest coalition partner, would capture 13 seats, down from its current 15, the poll showed.
The poll surveyed 500 people and has a margin of error of 4.5 percent.
In an interview with Yedioth Ahronoth's website, Ynet, Lieberman described an early election as a done deal. "It's now just a matter of (setting) dates," he said.
Lieberman has been a leading advocate of imposing military service on ultra-Orthodox Jews - most Jewish men and women are subject to the draft at the age of 18 - and requiring Israeli Arabs to perform national service outside the armed forces.
Ultra-Orthodox parties in the coalition have said they would fight such a move. The current conscription law expires in August and the government has to decide the issue soon.
Netanyahu has also been under pressure from pro-settler coalition partners and some outspoken Likud party members who have questioned his commitment to Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank, where Palestinians seek a state.
Netanyahu's government has pledged to evict or raze numerous settlement outposts put up without official sanction, drawing warnings from some political allies that his coalition could collapse as a result.
(Writing by Maayan Lubell and Jeffrey Heller; Editing by Mark Heinrich)