Bernat Armangue, File, Associated Press
JERUSALEM — Signs are growing that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will call parliamentary elections as early as February, months ahead of schedule in a bid to capitalize on a wave of popularity and a fragmented opposition to guarantee his hold on power for several more years.
While Netanyahu has not made any formal announcement, several members of his coalition, including his foreign minister and the speaker of parliament, have signaled that elections are imminent. An official decision could come in the next week or two as parliament opens its fall session, with February the likely date of the vote.
Netanyahu has presided over a relatively stable period. Re-election could give him a fresh mandate to continue his tough stance toward Iran's suspect nuclear program, put the already deadlocked peace process with the Palestinians further into deep freeze and further complicate relations with the U.S. if President Barack Obama is re-elected.
Elections are currently scheduled a year from now. But Israeli coalition governments rarely last their full terms, and Netanyahu appears to have concluded that now is the time to strike.
The immediate reason is the difficulty in passing the annual budget. If a budget isn't approved by Dec. 31, he would be required to order a new vote. In a challenging economic climate, experts say the next budget will require deep cuts to social programs favored by his coalition partners.
But Netanyahu may have deeper motivations as well. After presiding over a remarkably stable coalition for nearly four years, he has little incentive to wait a few extra months when the stars seem so well aligned for him to win re-election.
"Think of a stock: His is high now and he wants to sell before it drops," said veteran political analyst Hanan Crystal. "Bibi has no real challengers. The gold medal has already been decided. Now the fight is over silver," he added, using Netanyahu's nickname.
Opinion polls put Netanyahu's Likud Party far ahead of all rivals, his coalition partners are vulnerable, the opposition is fractured and leaderless, and the only truly viable candidate to replace him, former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, is entangled in a legal battle that will keep him on the sidelines for the coming months.
In addition, Netanyahu appears to have defused a crisis with the United States over Iran's nuclear program. The U.S., Israel and allies accuse Tehran of trying to develop atomic weapons, but Iran denies the charge, saying its program is for peaceful purposes only.
In a speech to the United Nations last week, Netanyahu backed away from threats to attack Iran, signaling that the world has until next summer to curb Tehran's nuclear program. He had been under heavy U.S. pressure to halt his calls for military threats.
Crystal said re-election would give Netanyahu a valuable vote of confidence in case Obama gets re-elected. Many have speculated that Obama may seek payback for what is perceived as Netanyahu's preference for Obama's Republican challenger Mitt Romney, an old friend and ideological comrade.
Early this week, Netanyahu held out the prospect of elections when his office announced he would meet with coalition partners to discuss the budget. Since then, it has appeared increasingly likely that he will call a vote.
In perhaps the strongest sign that elections are near, Netanyahu has had a high-profile falling out in recent days with his closest ally, Defense Minister Ehud Barak. Netanyahu's office has accused Barak of trying to undermine him in discussions with American officials. Netanyahu was especially upset when Barak met Chicago Mayor Rahm Emmanuel, a close friend of Obama, during a recent trip to the U.S. without telling the prime minister. Barak has said he did nothing wrong, and has presented himself as a moderating force who has repeatedly smoothed over relations with the Americans throughout Netanyahu's tenure.
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