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Netanyahu may chase easy election win in September

Israel's prime minister is expected to announce as soon as next week that the country's general elections will be moved as polls show he should secure another four-year term.

TEL AVIV // Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel's prime minister, is expected to announce as soon as next week that the country's general elections will be moved up to September as polls yesterday showed he should win easily.

The prospect of September elections - originally slated for November 2013 - indicates that any possible attack on Iran's nuclear facilities is unlikely to take place in coming months, analysts said.

Still, the probable victory of Mr Netanyahu, the head of Israel's right-wing government, may also mean that he would try to form a broad-based coalition of parties from the Right and the Left that would give him more public support to launch a strike later.

Winning another four-year term may also signal that suspended talks with the Palestinians will remain deadlocked because of Mr Netanyahu's aim to continue building settlements in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, according to analysts. Palestinian leaders have refused to resume talks unless Israel halts settlement expansion.

The premier planned to announce the September 4 elections at a party convention on Sunday, a spokeswoman for Mr Netanyahu's Likud party, speaking on condition of anonymity, told The National.

For Mr Netanyahu, his favourable position in the polls appears to be the main reason for calling for an early ballot. Yesterday, a poll published in the left-wing Haaretz newspaper showed that 48 per cent of Jewish Israelis would support his re-election - a higher figure than all three of his rivals combined.

Two other surveys, published by the conservative Jerusalem Post and Maariv newspapers, showed that Likud may boost its parliamentary seats to 31 from the current 27. The centrist Labour party would be the second-biggest party, increasing its number of seats to as many as 18 from 13 now, the polls showed.

Israeli commentators said yesterday that Mr Netanyahu may also want to avoid an election campaign after anticipated budget cuts later this year. Additionally, his ruling coalition is threatened by a fiery debate over the so-called Tal Law, which exempts ultra-Orthodox men from obligatory army service. The issue has stirred a deep rift within his government, with the far-right, secular party Yisrael Beitenu demanding the premier replace the law and the ultra-Orthodox Shas movement opposing changes to the legislation.

Another reason that Mr Netanyahu may want early elections is to avoid a ballot after November's US presidential elections, in which the incumbent US President Barack Obama may be re-elected. Mr Netanyahu and Mr Obama have had sharp differences over Israel's approach to the peace talks, and - if re-elected - the US leader may more aggressively criticise the Israeli premier's moves to expand settlements.

Mr Netanyahu's likely victory in an election may trigger speculation on its significance for any attack on Tehran's nuclear sites. Mr Netanyahu is believed to be one of the main proponents in the government for such a strike. Officials in Israel fear their countries will be targeted by Iran if it develops nuclear weapons. Iran insists its nuclear programme is for peaceful purposes.

"If an election takes place in four months, one can assess that an attack on Iran is not imminent," said Yoel Guzansky, a former Israeli government official who helped coordinate Israel's approach to Iran from 2005 to 2009.

Mr Guzansky, a researcher at the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University, added that garnering more support for a strike on Iran may partly be driving the premier to early elections.

"After the elections, there is a chance that the prime minister will form a broad-based coalition government," he said. "If he succeeds, that could give him more legitimacy to act vis-à-vis Iran. That way he can say that most Israelis supported an attack and not just the Likud or Shas."

Some analysts said Mr Netanyahu may place the Iran issue high on his campaign agenda to shift attention from a possible renewal of protests over Israel's high cost of living. The biggest demonstrations over social and economic issues in Israel's 64-year history took place last summer and protest leaders have threatened to resume them.

"The question is whether the social protests would change the predomination of security as the top campaign issue because the security situation is relatively calm and there are a great deal of undercurrents on the social problems," said Itzhak Galnoor, a political scientist from Jerusalem's Hebrew University. That may lead Mr Netanyahu "to play up the Iran card very high," he added.

foreign.desk@thenational.ae