JERUSALEM — Israel's prime minister on Tuesday ordered new parliamentary elections in early 2013, roughly eight months ahead of schedule, setting the stage for a lightning quick campaign that will likely win him re-election.
For nearly four years, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has presided over a conservative coalition that has proven stable in a country where governments rarely serve out a full term. Re-election could grant him a fresh mandate to continue his tough stance toward Iran's suspect nuclear program, put the already deadlocked peace process with the Palestinians further into deep freeze and complicate relations with the U.S. if President Barack Obama is re-elected.
In a nationally televised address, Netanyahu said he was forced to call the snap polls after his coalition could not agree on a budget.
"I have decided that it is in Israel's better interest to go to elections now and as quickly as possible," he said. "For Israel, it is preferable to have as short a campaign as possible, one of three months over one that would last in practice an entire year and damage Israel's economy."
With no viable alternative on the horizon, Netanyahu is expected to easily be re-elected as prime minister: He is riding a wave of popularity and his opposition is fragmented and leaderless.
The next vote had been scheduled for a full year from now, although speculation had been growing for weeks that the current government's days were numbered and that Netanyahu would call for an early vote.
The immediate reason for the snap elections was the coalition's inability to pass a 2013 budget by a Dec. 31 deadline, but Netanyahu has long been rumored to be leaning toward elections, given his high standings in opinion polls, the lack of a clear rival and fears the economy could weaken next year.
A recent poll in the Haaretz daily found that 35 percent of Israelis believe Netanyahu is most suited to being prime minister, more than double that of his closest rival, Labor leader Shelly Yachimovich. The survey questioned 507 people and had a margin of error of 4.2 percentage points.
Netanyahu said he spent Tuesday holding talks with his coalition partners and "came to the conclusion that at this time it is not possible to pass a responsible budget."
He listed his accomplishments, saying his government had boosted security at a time of regional turmoil and improved the economy despite the global economic meltdown.
Parliament reconvenes next week for its winter session without the annual budget in place. At that time, Netanyahu is expected to formally dissolve parliament.
Netanyahu also has little political incentive to wait until October 2013 – and give his opponents a chance to gain ground – when he is well-positioned to win re-election.
Opinion polls put Netanyahu's Likud Party far ahead of its rivals. But the election results could alter the makeup of his coalition government, which is currently comprised mostly by religious and nationalist parties.
In the 120-seat parliament, no single party controls a majority, resulting in the need for coalition governments usually headed by the leader of the biggest party.
The dovish Labor Party, now a small faction, is running a distant second, having seen its support grow after mass social protests against the country's high cost of living. Its leader, Yachimovich, who is a former journalist, is running solely on jobs and the economy.
Yachimovich, who has vowed to capitalize on the growing gaps between rich and poor in the coming election, tends to favor a strong government safety net, while Netanyahu favors more conservative, free-market policies.
After Netanyahu's announcement, Yachimovich said there was a "reasonable probability" of winning.
"The public today understands that security is not just on the borders but is also job and income security and health and education security," she said.
Perhaps the most viable candidate to replace Netanyahu is former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, but he is entangled in a legal battle that will keep him on the sidelines for the coming months.
Lagging behind Labor in the polls are Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman's ultranationalist Yisrael Beiteinu party, a new centrist party led by former TV anchorman Yair Lapid and the decimated Kadima Party, which is currently the largest group in parliament but has slipped badly in the polls under new leader Shaul Mofaz.
"I think the decision for early elections is a day of hope for the citizens of Israel," Mofaz told Chanel 10 TV. "It is an opportunity to replace the bad Netanyahu government that has isolated Israel politically over the past four years, damaged Israel's deterrence and deteriorated the middle class."
During the campaign, opponents are likely to seize upon Netanyahu's rocky relationship with Obama over how to handle Iran. The rift has unsettled relations with Israel's closest and most important ally.
Netanyahu could also come under fire for his failure to advance peace talks with the Palestinians, massive street protests in Israel last summer against the growing gap between rich and poor, and widespread resentment over attempts by ultra-Orthodox parties to impose their ways on general society.
Despite these shortcomings, Netanyahu remains popular in opinion polls, thanks to a lengthy period of quiet, a resilient economy and his handling of the Iran issue.
Peace talks with the Palestinians could also possibly be renewed after Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas appeared to drop the main demand that has prevented talks.
Abbas told European diplomats that he would resume talks after the U.N. votes on a Palestinian request for "nonmember state" status, backing down from a previous demand to freeze all Israeli settlement activity before peace talks can resume. A vote is expected in November.
The official Palestinian Wafa news agency quoted Abbas as saying that once the U.N. membership is completed "we will be ready to return to the table of negotiations with the Israeli side to discuss all outstanding issues between us on the final status."
Abbas previously refused to meet Netanyahu while Israeli settlement construction was taking place in the West Bank, where he hopes to establish a future Palestinian state.
Abbas made no mention of a settlement freeze, and officials said Abbas believes a freeze would no longer be necessary if he receives U.N. recognition of a state that includes all of the West Bank.
Peace talks have been frozen for nearly four years, in part because of Palestinian demands for a settlement freeze and Israel's refusal to accept it.