Israel's Netanyahu calls early elections

Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday announced early elections, suggesting they would be held ahead of the scheduled October 2013 deadline.

"I don't want there to be a year-and-a-half of political instability accompanied by blackmail and populism. I'd prefer a short electoral campaign of four months that will ensure political stability," he told a meeting of his Likud party in Tel Aviv.

Netanyahu's address, which included a laundry list of his achievements in three years of government, failed to give a definitive date for the vote, which he is expected to comfortably win.

Israeli officials, including his coalition chairman Zeev Elkin, had earlier said there was consensus among most of the government on a September 4 date.

Speaking to AFP after Netanyahu's address, Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz declined to say whether that date still stands.

"The elections will apparently be in September. The Likud will win and the prime minister will form the next government," he said.

Netanyahu's address nonetheless ended months of speculation about whether he would seek to bring forward the elections in a bid to bolster his position and capitalise on his popularity.

Observers have long suggested he would seek to shore up his standing ahead of painful budget cuts expected later this year and the US presidential election in November.

His decision also comes amid a fight within his coalition over a contentious law allowing ultra-Orthodox Jews to defer their military service.

Netanyahu has pledged to replace the law, which expires this year, but is caught between the staunchly secular Yisrael Beitenu, which opposes the rule, and the ultra-Orthodox factions in his coalition.

But polls show that he could hardly have picked a better time to seek re-election, with surveys showing he easily outstrips his rivals for the office of prime minister.

A poll published in the Haaretz daily on Thursday showed Netanyahu commands more support than his next three rivals put together, with 48 percent of Israelis backing his re-election.

His Likud party also looks set to increase its standing in the 120-seat Knesset and have its choice of parties with which to form a coalition.

Polls, including a survey published by the Maariv daily on Friday, consistently show Likud netting around 31 seats, up from its current 27.

The Maariv poll showed the Labour party taking 18 seats, up from the 13 it won in the last elections, with Yisrael Beitenu seeing its 15 seats fall to 12.

The Kadima party, which won the most seats in the last election but failed to form a coalition, looks set for a crushing defeat, with its 28 seats reduced to just 11.

The newly formed centrist Yesh Atid (There is a Future) is also expected to win around 11 seats.

Aviad Natovitz, a Likud member from Petach Tikva near Tel Aviv, expressed the party's prevailing confidence as he waited for Netanyahu's speech.

"Elections now or in six months or a year would give more or less the same result," he said. "The Likud will form the next government because there is no alternative on the left."

The biggest uncertainty surrounding the vote is the shape of Netanyahu's eventual coalition, with the premier pledging Sunday to form a broad government.

"We need a big, strong Likud. We will form a government as large as possible to assure the future of Israel," he said.

Polls show the smaller conservative and religious parties Netanyahu is in government with now will win enough seats to rejoin him in power if he chooses.

But Labour, Kadima and Yesh Atid have also expressed some willingness in joining a new Netanyahu government.

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