Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Tuesday called an early general election, presenting himself as the only option in the face of the Iranian nuclear threat, upheavals in the Middle East and the global economic crisis.
Announcing the move, Netanyahu said the public should go to the polls “as quickly as possible,” adding that Israel needed to pursue a “responsible security and economic policy” in the face of the multiple economic and security challenges facing it.
“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 said in a live broadcast 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.”
Elections for Israel’s 19th parliament had been due to take place in October next year, but Netanyahu moved to bring forward the date after failing to garner the support of coalition partners for an unpopular austerity budget which must be passed by the end of this year.
Although he did not give a date for the election, the Knesset is due to convene for its winter session on Monday and dissolve itself within days, at which point the vote date will be set.
Commentators believe the vote will take place in late January or mid February. By law, elections must take place on a Tuesday.
The move to bring forward elections was sparked by a coalition deadlock over next year’s budget, which includes a fresh series of harsh austerity measures.
“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.
In his address, Netanyahu was quick to burnish 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.”
“We have to continue with a responsible security and economic policy because we are still facing a lot of challenges,” he said, the first of which was “ensuring that Iran doesn’t get a nuclear bomb.”
Garnering international support for sanctions on Iran over its controversial nuclear program, which Tehran insists has only peaceful aims, has been one of the central planks of Netanyahu’s term in office, garnering him widespread support among the Israeli public.
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 in order 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 percent saying they were unhappy with his performance.
Shortly before Netanyahu’s announcement, Labor leader Shelly Yachimovich suggested the vote be held on Jan. 29, saying it was high time the country went to the polls.
“The country has actually been in election mode for over six months, which is unhealthy and should be stopped as soon as possible,” she wrote on her Facebook page.
“The public must remember that Netanyahu is going to elections so that immediately afterwards he can pass a harsh budget following election — a budget that will harm the lives of all of us, except the very richest,” she said, adding that the public must “choose one of two approaches” — Netanyahu’s or hers.
Labor, she said, was “ready” for an election.
Netanyahu’s coalition of ultra-Orthodox, right-wing and nationalist parties currently holds 66 of the 120 seats in parliament.