Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called elections for early next year, pointing to opposition from partners in the coalition government to his austerity budget plan as a reason for moving up the vote.
Netanyahu, who is in his second stint as Israel’s premier, announced yesterday in a prime-time broadcast from his office in Jerusalem that he will “seek a renewed mandate from the people to continue to lead Israel.”
The decision will mean a three-month election campaign, the prime minister said. Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz said he expects balloting to be held in January or February. The election must be approved by parliament.
Netanyahu is trying to push through spending cuts as government revenue lags behind forecasts amid slowing global growth. The elections would also come amid tensions with Iran over its nuclear program, and the prime minister said yesterday that re-election would enable him to press for tougher action against the Islamic Republic.
“We must make sure that Iran doesn’t get a bomb,” Netanyahu said.
The premier met President Shimon Peres today, according to an e-mailed statement from the president’s office. The head of state told Netanyahu that he hoped the vote would be “a lesson in democracy and will be conducted in a civilized atmosphere.”
A poll published Sept. 28 by the Haaretz daily showed Netanyahu’s Likud party would win 28 places in the 120-seat Knesset, one more than it currently holds, making it the largest faction in parliament. The survey showed 35 percent of Israelis see Netanyahu as “most suited” to lead, almost double the 16 percent of his nearest contender for the premiership, Shelly Yacimovich of the Labor Party.
“It makes sense for him to call the shots from a position of strength rather than waiting to be fired upon by the opposing parties,” said Peter Medding, a political scientist at Hebrew University of Jerusalem. “This is mostly about short-term internal domestic issues -- in particular, the capability to govern and pass a budget.”
Israel must hold elections no later than a year from now if they aren’t moved up.
Netanyahu, 62, has faced opposition to budget cuts from coalition members who are reluctant to reduce spending.
Israel must cut next year’s outlay by about 17 billion shekels ($4.4 billion) to stay within fiscal limits as it faces a possible deepening of the European financial crisis, Bank of Israel Governor Stanley Fischer said in August. The government deficit was 4.1 percent of gross domestic product in the months through August, more than double the original target for 2012, the Finance Ministry said on Sept. 4.
The government already has approved higher taxes beginning in 2013 to help meet next year’s revised deficit target of 3 percent of GDP.
Yacimovich said she would try to topple Netanyahu over the “cruel” nature of his budget proposals. “These elections will be a choice between an economy of the violent jungle and a fair economy and just society,” she said in an interview with Israel Radio.
Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman said on Army Radio that he expects to have a “central role” in the next government. “I’m sure we will be the second biggest party,” he said. The Haaretz poll had Labor taking 20 seats, while Liberman’s party would win 14.
Former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who headed the opposition Kadima party, is seriously considering returning to politics, Army Radio said. Kadima, which is the largest party in parliament with 28 seats, fell to eight in the Haaretz poll.
Netanyahu told the United Nations last month that “by next spring, at most next summer,” Iran will be in the final stage of having enough enriched uranium to make a nuclear weapon. Israeli leaders have said that all options are on the table to prevent that from happening, including a military strike.
Israel and the U.S. suspect that Iran’s nuclear program is aimed at building a bomb. Iran says its nuclear installations are for civilian purposes.
“I have decided that the best interests of Israel obligate us to go to elections now and as quickly as possible,” Netanyahu said.
Netanyahu’s announcement was the second time this year he called for new elections. The prime minister retracted a bid in May to go to the polls. Having proposed then to hold elections Sept. 4 and reshape his restive governing coalition, Netanyahu reversed himself two days later with a surprise agreement to bring the opposition Kadima party into his government.
That arrangement lasted two months before Kadima leader Shaul Mofaz pulled out of the Cabinet because of disagreements with Netanyahu over drafting ultra-Orthodox Jews into the army.