By Aron Heller
JERUSALEM — Israel's prime minister on Tuesday ordered new parliamentary elections in early 2013, roughly eight months ahead of schedule, setting the stage for a lightning quick campaign that will likely win him re-election.
For nearly four years, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has presided over a conservative coalition that has proven stable in a country where governments rarely serve out a full term. Re-election could grant 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 complicate relations with the U.S. if President Barack Obama is re-elected.
In a nationally televised address, Netanyahu said he was forced to call the snap polls after his coalition could not agree on a budget.
"I have decided that it is in Israel's better interest to go to elections now and as quickly as possible," he said. "For Israel, it is preferable to have as short a campaign as possible, one of three months over one that would last in practice an entire year and damage Israel's economy."
With no viable alternative on the horizon, Netanyahu is expected to easily be re-elected as prime minister: He is riding a wave of popularity and his opposition is fragmented and leaderless.
The next vote had been scheduled for a full year from now, although speculation had been growing for weeks that the current government's days were numbered and that Netanyahu would call for an early vote.
The immediate reason for the snap elections was the coalition's inability to pass a 2013 budget by a Dec. 31 deadline, but Netanyahu has long been rumored to be leaning toward elections, given his high standings in opinion polls, the lack of a clear rival and fears the economy could weaken next year.
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