JERUSALEM (AP) — Israel's prime minister wrapped up consultations with his coalition partners Tuesday and appeared set to call early parliamentary elections later in the evening.
With no viable alternative on the horizon, Benjamin Netanyahu is expected to easily be re-elected as prime minister following a lightening quick campaign. He is riding a wave of popularity and his opposition is fragmented and leaderless. The election could come as early as January, nine months ahead of schedule.
For nearly four years, Netanyahu has presided over a coalition that has proven remarkably stable. 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.
The next vote is scheduled a full year from now. Israeli governments rarely last their full terms and speculation has been growing that the current government's days are numbered.
Netanyahu spent the day holding talks with his coalition partners, his office said in a statement. The immediate reason for elections would be the coalition's inability to pass a 2013 budget. But conditions are ripe for a Netanyahu re-election, given his high standings in opinion polls, the lack of a clear rival and fears the economy could weaken next year.
Parliament reconvenes next week for its winter session without the annual budget in place. If one isn't approved by Dec. 31, the prime minister would be required by law to order a new vote. After a round of talks with his coalition partners, Netanyahu said an agreement couldn't be reached.
The prime minister 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. The dovish Labor Party is running a distant second, having seen its support grow after mass social protests against the country's high cost of living. But its leader, former journalist Shelly Yachimovich, is running solely on jobs and the economy and is not considered a serious alternative for prime minister.
The only truly 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 party in parliament but has slipped badly in the polls under new leader Shaul Mofaz.
During the campaign, opponents are likely to seize upon Netanyahu's rocky relationship with Obama over how to handle Iran.
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.