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JERUSALEM/WINNIPEG, Manitoba (Reuters) - Potash Corp (POT.TO), the world's No. 1 fertilizer producer, is ramping up efforts to buy Israel Chemicals Ltd so it can shore up its leverage with China and India, top consuming countries that are expected to drive much of the industry's growth.
Although a deal is likely a long way off, acquiring ICL (ICL.TA), the world's sixth-largest fertilizer producer, would give Canada's Potash Corp better shipping access to China, India and other Asian economies. Rising Asian incomes and populations are expected to trigger greater fertilizer use to produce more food.
Potash Corp confirmed on Wednesday it has been in talks with Israeli officials on acquiring ICL. To get a deal done it would need approvals from Israel's Government Companies Authority, the prime minister and the Antitrust Authority to increase its 13.84 percent stake in ICL. If it does win approval in Israel, it would still likely need further antitrust approvals from a range of global regulators.
"This deal cannot be ruled out. However it is unlikely to happen in the near term," said Virginie Boucher-Ferte, an analyst at Deutsche Bank, in a note to clients.
About 34 percent of ICL, which has a market value of about $15 billion, is traded on the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange and a deal would be the largest foreign takeover of an Israeli company.
Potash Corp, which kept its Canadian status in 2010 after Ottawa vetoed a $39 billion bid from Anglo-Australian miner BHP Billiton Ltd (BHP.AX), has a market value of around $35 billion.
Conglomerate Israel Corp (ILCO.TA), which owns a majority in ICL, said Potash Corp Chief Executive Bill Doyle has met Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to push for a deal, while financial daily Calcalist said Netanyahu has instructed his staff and the finance ministry to examine it.
"The company confirms it is aware that Canada's Potash is in talks with various government agencies that included a meeting with the prime minister regarding examining the possibility of merging ICL with Potash," Israel Corp said in a statement.
A year ago, Potash sought to raise its stake in ICL - which also produces a third of the world's bromine - to 25 percent. The Israeli government gave initial approval, but Potash pulled the request when regulators took too long to respond.
According to Calcalist, Potash now seeks 100 percent of ICL, which has potash and phosphate mining rights on Israeli state-owned land.
Taking control of ICL would boost Potash's projected 2015 capacity of 17.1 million tonnes by about one quarter, folding in a company that Bank of America Merrill Lynch says controls about 20 percent of India's potash imports, and 15 percent of China's.
ICL would give Potash low-cost assets and boost the clout of marketing group Canpotex, even if the agency didn't formally expand its mandate to Israeli potash, said National Bank Financial analyst Robert Winslow.
"At the end of the day, they would control that supply, so effectively it would be part of the (Canpotex) oligopoly."
Potash Corp, already the world's largest producer of the crop nutrient potash, has long acted as the swing producer within the sector, cutting production when demand is weak to stabilize prices and boosting output when prices are strong.
It currently ships the bulk of its output into North and South America, but China and India are critical to its fortunes. The Saskatoon, Saskatchewan-based company last week reported a 22 percent drop in third-quarter profit, largely due to stalled talks between the two countries and Canpotex.
Shares of ICL gained 5.2 percent, while Israel Corp's shares rose 5.6 percent on Wednesday. Potash Corp shares gained 0.6 percent in New York and 0.5 percent in Toronto.
Potash CEO Doyle said last week that the company's equity investments are the second-best potash assets after its own.
"We own them with the long-term goal of having a majority position in each one. It doesn't happen overnight, but we think they're a very, very valuable part of our company, and it's more than just a monetary thing," he told analysts.
Potash Corp also has stakes in Arab Potash Co Plc APOT.AM in Jordan, Sinofert Holdings Ltd (0297.HK) in China and SQM SQMa.SN in Chile.
Boucher-Ferte said it was not clear whether Potash would offer ICL shareholders a premium for their stock. She said Potash would have to give Israel the right to repatriate license rights if a hostile country or entity took control of Potash.
Analysts believe the deal would benefit Israel Corp, which could stand to win a 20 percent stake in Potash and become a more recognized international player.
Potash Corp will soon have cash to spend as it winds down a nine-year, $8-billion expansion plan in 2013. It could also sell down its equity investments, Joel Jackson, an analyst at BMO Capital Markets, said in a note.
But with Israel headed for elections in January, discussions will likely be on hold for a while.
Additional reporting by Tova Cohen in Jerusalem and Euan Rocha in Toronto; Editing by Erica Billingham, David Cowell, Frank McGurty; and Peter Galloway