JERUSALEM – Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday signaled he wants to hold new elections in September, more than a year ahead of schedule, setting up a brief campaign that polls suggest will propel him to another term in office.
A new election could also result in a far different coalition comprised of centrist parties more open to making concession to the Palestinians. The situation also adds new uncertainty to the decision on whether Israel should take military action against Iran's suspect nuclear program.
Addressing a convention of his Likud Party on Sunday night, Netanyahu sounded as if he was already on the campaign trail, presenting a list of accomplishments by his government. He said he had strengthened the economy, boosted security and put the issue of Iran's nuclear program on the international agenda.
Netanyahu also left little doubt about his intentions to call elections and form a broad coalition.
"I believe we will get a renewed mandate from the citizens of Israel to continue to lead the country. With God's help, we will form as wide a government as possible," he said. "I won't lend my hand to an election campaign that will last a year and a half and damage the state. A short campaign of four months is better. That can return stability to the political system quickly."
Netanyahu gave no firm date for the vote, despite days of speculation it would be set for Sept. 4. Officials said Netanyahu, who ended a one-week mourning period earlier Sunday over the death of his father, wanted time to consult with other parties before finalizing the date. The parliament must approve new elections and their date.
Netanyahu's government, Israel's most stable in years, was scheduled to remain in power until late 2013.
But disagreements over budget demands, unsanctioned West Bank settlement construction and draft exemptions granted to ultra-religious Jewish men have created rifts inside the governing coalition.
Polls suggest Netanyahu's Likud Party is expected to win at least one-quarter of parliament's 120 seats to become the legislature's largest faction — putting him in a comfortable position to form a majority coalition.
The outgoing government was dominated by religious and nationalist partners that failed to seriously engage the Palestinians. The coalition has also been criticized for promoting a series of bills that appeared to stifle dissent by targeting dovish groups critical of government policy.
This time, Netanyahu may emerge well positioned to put together a more moderate coalition.
The three largest center-left parties, Labor, Kadima and Yesh Atid, together are expected to capture about 40 seats, according to recent polls. Netanyahu could invite some or all of them to join him. None of these parties has ruled out a partnership with Likud.
Early poll results rarely reflect the outcome of the voting.
The prospect of an election campaign has also set off a debate over whether Israel might try to attack Iran's nuclear facilities.
Israel, like the West, believes Iran is developing nuclear weapons — a charge that Iran denies — and has repeatedly hinted it may strike Iran if it concludes that U.S.-led diplomacy and sanctions have failed. Israeli leaders have signaled time is running out and they would have to act in the coming months.
Attacking during the campaign would inevitably lead to charges that Netanyahu is trying to win votes. In 1981, then-Prime Minister Menachem Begin ordered a surprise airstrike on an unfinished Iraqi nuclear reactor — just weeks before elections and trailing in the polls. Begin was narrowly re-elected.
Current polls show about 60 percent of Israelis opposing unilateral action, so the electoral be benefits of such a strike were doubtful, also considering the likelihood that it would trigger painful retaliation.
Netanyahu signaled that his decision would be based solely on strategic interests.
"Of course Iran is trying to dupe the world to win time. But we will not let go of the pressure until the threat is really removed," he said.
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