Israelis to go to the polls early next year
Benjamin Netanyahu calls election 8 months early, and says the move is in the 'national interest' as economy sags; vote expected early next year
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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has called an early general election, saying it should be held "as quickly as possible" in a bid to avoid damaging the country's flagging economy.
"My duty as prime minister is to put the national interest before everything, and so I've decided that for the good of Israel we must go to an election now as fast as possible," he told a press conference on Tuesday, broadcast live on Israel's main television and radio stations.
"For the state of Israel, it is preferable to have a short election period of three months than a long election campaign which would last a whole year, and hurt Israel's economy," Netanyahu said.
Elections for Israel's 19th parliament had been due to take place in October 2013 but the Israeli leader moved to bring forward the date after failing to garner the support of coalition partners for an unpopular austerity budget that must be passed by the end of this year.
Although he did not set a date for the election, Israeli press reports suggested it would be in late January or mid-February. By law, elections must take place on a Tuesday.
Netanyahu has been trying to push through an austerity budget prepared by Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz that commentators say has virtually no chance of being adopted by the end of 2012.
"I finished my talks with party leaders in the coalition and I reached the conclusion that at this time, it is not possible to pass a responsible budget," Netanyahu said.
"We are facing an election year and unfortunately, in an election year, it is difficult for parties to put the national interest over party interests," he said.
The Knesset is likely to be dissolved next week within days of starting its winter session on October 15. The election must then take place within 90 days.
Netanyahu's announcement ends weeks of speculation about whether he would bring forward the election to bolster his position and capitalise on his popularity.
Recent polls indicate Netanyahu, who heads the right-wing Likud party, is well placed to stay in power, although his ratings hit a low point earlier this year after he pushed through an initial series of austerity measures to plug a shortfall in the budget.
The measures, which came on the back of mass protests over the rising cost of living, sparked public anger and saw Netanyahu's popularity slump to its lowest level since he came to power in March 2009 with 60 per cent saying they were unhappy with his performance.
In his speech, Netanyahu played up his government's security and economic credentials, presenting himself as the only guarantee in the face of regional "upheavals" and the global economic crisis.
"In another few months, we will finish the fourth year of the most stable government in recent decades," he said.
"This stability helped us to achieve the two objectives we promised the citizens of Israel: first, we strengthened security in a period of dangerous upheaval all around us in the Middle East. And secondly, we strengthened the economy during another upheaval - that of the ongoing global financial crisis.
"There is only one way to preserve these achievements - in the face of the regional upheavals and the global economic crisis, we have to continue with a responsible security and economic policy," he said, calling on the public to re-elect him.
There was a flurry of election fever earlier this year after Netanyahu said in May that he would go to the polls in September.
But as parliament was voting on whether to dissolve itself, he backtracked and made an 11th-hour deal to bring the opposition Kadima party into his ruling coalition, giving him a cast-iron majority of 94 seats.
That political marriage collapsed just 70 days later, with Kadima head Shaul Mofaz pulling out over what he said were irreconcilable differences over plans to change the law on universal conscription.
Netanyahu's coalition of right-wing, nationalist and ultra-Orthodox parties currently holds 66 of the 120 seats in parliament.
The issues facing voters in Israel's general election
Key campaign issues in Israel's parliamentary election, set for early next year:
Israel-US relations: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's friendship with President Barack Obama is frosty. If both are re-elected, relations could sour.
Iran: Netanyahu and his government have pressed hard for stricter sanctions against Iran because of its suspect nuclear programme, implying that Israel might be forced to attack Iranian nuclear sites to stop weapons development. His opponents say a unilateral Israeli attack would bring painful retaliation and would not significantly damage Iran's programme.
Palestinians: Netanyahu has grudgingly accepted the concept of a Palestinian state but has rejected demands to halt settlement construction in the West Bank. His dovish opponents insist it is in Israel's interest to withdraw from most of the West Bank and say Netanyahu is not prepared to make the necessary concessions.
Arab world: Netanyahu insists peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan must be preserved, but his opponents fault his dire warnings about Islamist parties that have won elections after "Arab spring" revolts, worrying they could be a self-fulfilling prophecy of hostility towards Israel.
Economy: Critics complain that Netanyahu's free-market, privatisation-oriented policies have led to growing income gaps, increased poverty and social injustice.