Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday said he supported an early general election in four months’ time, a ballot polls say could strengthen his hand as Israel confronts Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
“It is preferable to have a short election campaign of four months that will swiftly return stability to the political ranks,” Netanyahu said in a speech to a convention of his rightist Likud party.
The next national vote was not due until October 2013, but new legislation that might force ultra-Orthodox Jews to serve in the military and an upcoming budget debate have threatened to unravel a governing coalition of religious and nationalist parties once seen as one of the most stable in Israel’s history.
Netanyahu said he wanted to avoid pressure from coalition partners who were beginning to destabilize the government. He did not specify a date, but a party official earlier said September 4 was the probable date for the ballot.
“With the start of the government’s fourth year we have seen many signs that the stability has begun to waver and political instability always brings extortion (and) populism which harm security, the economy and society. I will not allow a campaign of a year and a half that will harm the country,” Netanyahu said.
A Netanyahu victory two months before the U.S. election would give him leverage over Barack Obama on the Iranian and Palestinian issues while the U.S. president is still engaged in his own campaign and wary of alienating pro-Israeli voters.
Netanyahu and Obama have had a thorny relationship and the right-wing Israeli leader has come under pressure from Washington not to take unilateral military action against Iranian nuclear facilities suspected of being part of a project to produce nuclear weapons.
Iran says its nuclear program is purely civilian. Israel is believed to be the Middle East’s only nuclear-armed power.
Opinion polls show Likud will easily come out on top of the national ballot, giving Netanyahu a renewed mandate to tackle what he has described as the most important challenge facing his country - the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran.
Parliament was due to convene on Monday and vote on a coalition-backed resolution of dissolution. Netanyahu and his government would remain in office until a new administration is sworn in after the election in four months’ time.
Israeli leaders have insisted the election campaign would have no impact on their decision-making on Iran.
“Netanyahu does not hide his intention to strike Tehran’s nuclear sites before they become immune to attack,” commentator Ron Ben-Yishai, referring to Iranian efforts to put its atomic facilities deep underground, wrote in Israel’s popular Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper.
“Hence, his decision to call early elections when his position on this issue is so clear and consistent shows confidence that Israel’s public is behind him, thereby granting more credibility to the Israeli threat,” he wrote.
Netanyahu has been urged by Washington and other world powers to allow beefed-up international sanctions on Iran to bite. He has voiced pessimism about the outcome of international nuclear talks with Iran due to resume in Baghdad on May 23.
While opinion polls have shown strong support for Netanyahu’s leadership, they have also indicated a wide majority of Israelis either oppose an Israeli strike on Iran or would favor an attack only if it were carried out with U.S. agreement.
Some former Israeli security chiefs have criticized Netanyahu’s hawkish stance. His former internal security chief, Yuval Diskin, accused both him and Defence Minister Ehud Barak of having a “messianic” policy toward Iran.
On Friday, Barak said Iran’s nuclear strategy could eventually allow it to build an atomic bomb with just 60 days’ notice. The remarks elaborated on long-held Israeli concerns that Tehran is playing for time as it engages in negotiations aimed at curbing its uranium enrichment.
Writing by Jeffrey Heller and Ori Lewis; editing by Andrew Roche