Israel prepares for potential early elections

JERUSALEM - Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday looked set to call early elections in a bid to strengthen his position before a potential fight over austerity measures and US elections in November.

For now, Netanyahu has made no official announcement of his plans to bring forward the vote, which is currently scheduled for October 2013.

But he has made it clear that he will address the issue soon, with widespread speculation he could choose a date in late August or early September.

Commentators and politicians alike said a decision had already been taken to bring forward the date, with the only question remaining how soon it would be held.

"It's final," said Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who heads the ultra-nationalist Yisrael Beitenu party. "Now it is only a question of dates."

Lieberman, whose party is a key coalition partner for Netanyahu, told the Ynet news website he was eager for the vote to take place as quickly as possible.

"If the decision to go to elections has been made, we should hold them as quickly as possible," he said.

Israeli media said that dates in August and September were being considered, as well as October, which would be after the Jewish high holidays.

Israeli public radio said Netanyahu currently favours a date between mid-August and the beginning of September, while the head of the main opposition Kadima party, Shaul Mofaz, is pushing for October 16.

Commentators said there were plenty of reasons for Netanyahu to favour bringing the vote forward, including the desire to consolidate his position before having to implement budget cuts later this year.

He is also looking to bolster domestic support before US elections in November, which could return US President Barack Obama to office.

Netanyahu has differed with Obama on issues ranging from the stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace process to Iran's nuclear programme.

Another key reason for bringing the vote forward is a dispute over the issue of drafting Orthodox Jews into the army, which has threatened the stability of Netanyahu's coalition.

The so-called Tal Law, which allowed ultra-Orthodox Jews to defer their service in the Israeli military, is strongly opposed by Lieberman's staunchly secular Yisrael Beitenu party.

Netanyahu has pledged to replace the law, which expires this year, with a more "egalitarian" rule, but is caught between Yisrael Beitenu and the ultra-Orthodox factions in his coalition, who adamantly oppose military service.

Israel's parliament, the Knesset, is expected to discuss a replacement law on May 9, but Lieberman made clear on Saturday that his party was willing to bring down the government over the issue.

"I think that our obligation to the coalition is over," he told Israel's privately owned Channel 2 television. "There is also an obligation to the voter and, when the coalition is not prepared to compromise with us, we shall take decisions."

Whenever the elections are held, polls have consistently showed Netanyahu and his Likud party coming out on top, with no credible rival to the prime minister.

A poll published by the Yediot Aharonot newspaper on Monday showed the Likud would increase its standing from 27 to 30 seats in the 120-seat Knesset, if elections were held today.

The Labour party stands to make the biggest gains, winning 18 seats, from the nine it currently holds, while Yisrael Beitenu would lose two seats, leaving it with 13, the poll showed.

Kadima is expected to suffer crushing losses, with its standing reduced from 28 seats to 11, while the newly-formed Yesh Atid (There is a Future) party would win 11 seats, the poll found.

The shape of any future coalition remains unclear, however, with Labour, Kadima and Yesh Atid all having expressed willingness to join a government led by Netanyahu.

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