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Israeli opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu promised Sunday to strengthen Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip if he is elected prime minister.

But in a new sign of moderation, Netanyahu suggested a government controlled by his Likud Party might limit its policy to expanding existing settlements rather than building new ones."We'll certainly strengthen the settlement community, the Jewish community in these areas. This is the heart of the land of Israel," Netanyahu said.

"The precise pattern, whether we increase the existing communities or add on new ones - that is something I'll leave to the consideration of our government," he said.

Netanyahu, who has been softening hard-line Likud policies in a bid to claim the political middle ground as the May 29 election approaches, said he would try to avoid friction with Palestinians.

"I envision autonomous zones for Palestinians and security and settlement zones under Israel (control)," said Netanyahu, speaking to reporters at his headquarters.

The Labor government of Prime Minister Shimon Peres - whose re-election bid Netanyahu is challenging - has halted new settlements in the Gaza Strip and West Bank except for the expansion of settlements around Jerusalem.

The future of the Jewish settlements is one of the most explosive issues in the Israeli-Palestinian talks on a final peace accord, which began earlier this month.