Sebastian Scheiner, Associated Press
JERUSALEM — Israel officially opened its election season on Monday as parliament prepared to dissolve itself and schedule a vote for January, plunging the country into a vicious, three-month political campaign.
Israeli leaders launched harsh attacks on one another during a parliamentary debate that preceded the vote, setting the parameters for what is likely to follow in the campaign. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu boasted of his achievements, while the opposition heckled and insulted him mercilessly.
Netanyahu announced last week that he was calling early elections, months ahead of schedule. The immediate reason for the vote is his coalition government's inability to pass a budget by a Dec. 31 deadline. With the economy slowing, the government would have been forced to make steep cutbacks unpopular with voters.
But after leading a remarkably stable coalition for nearly four years, Netanyahu also appears to have sensed that the time is ripe to win a new term. Netanyahu's Likud Party is leading in most opinion polls, and his opponents remain divided and disorganized.
Parliament was expected to approve Netanyahu's proposal for elections on Jan. 22. Elections had been scheduled for October 2013.
Yet Netanyahu still faces some areas of vulnerability, including the uncertain economic situation, a failure to advance peace efforts with the Palestinians and his rocky relations with U.S. President Barack Obama.
In an address to parliament ahead of Monday's vote, Netanyahu boasted of a series of accomplishments under his leadership. He emphasized that Israel's economy grew while most other countries suffered setbacks, took credit for the relative decline in Palestinian attacks against Israelis, and said he put Iran's nuclear program on the global agenda to the point where the country was now under crippling economic sanctions.
"In less than 100 days the people of Israel will determine who will lead it," Netanyahu said. "Who will lead it against the biggest security challenges we have known since the state was founded, who will lead it against the worst financial crisis the world has known in the past 80 years."
"All those who belittle the threat of a nuclear Iran are not worthy of leading Israel even one day," he added.
Netanyahu was repeatedly interrupted by shouts and boos by opposition lawmakers.
In a separate speech, opposition leader Shaul Mofaz countered with a blistering attack Netanyahu's shortcomings.
He said that by doing nothing on peace with the Palestinians and continuing settlement building in the West Bank, Netanyahu was making the areas inseparable and bringing Israel ever closer to being a bi-national state evenly divided between Jews and Arabs. Without the West Bank, Jews make up a 75 percent majority of Israel.
The Palestinians claim all of the West Bank, captured by Israel in the 1967 Mideast war, as part of a future state. They say continued Jewish settlement in the territory make it impossible to partition the land into two states. Throughout Netanyahu's term, the Palestinians have refused to negotiate, saying settlement construction must first be halted. The international community has nearly universally condemned the settlements.
Mofaz also blasted Netanyahu for undermining Israel's relations with the United States through repeated quibbles with Obama, leaving the widespread impression that he is supporting Republican challenger Mitt Romney in the upcoming U.S. elections.
"Where is your responsibility to Israel's fate with its greatest and almost only ally, the United States? Why are you aggressively interfering in the democratic elections in the United States? Why? What need was there to do that?" Mofaz asked, as Netanyahu listened impassively.
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