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Middle East

Netanyahu chooses date of next Israeli general election


Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has chosen January 22 as the date of the next general election, but it could be some time before he discovers the identity of his main challenger.

According to most polls, Mr Netanyahu is almost certain to win with an increased majority for his coalition of right-wing and religious parties. A survey for the Haaretz newspaper conducted on Wednesday showed Mr Netanyahu with 57% support of electors with just 28% for his closest rival - the former opposition leader Tzipi Livni who quit politics last year.

Mr Netanyahu is hoping to cash in on his popularity and the disarray of the opposition, enabling him to continue his tough policies towards Iran's nuclear ambitions and peace talks with the Palestinians with a secure enough mandate to tackle looming economic problems if necessary.

By calling early elections, he has also avoided a potentially bruising budget battle with his coalition partners over thorny issues including a planned reduction in child benefits for large families and reduced exemptions for religious seminary students - both of which could have triggered a head-on clash with the ultra-orthodox parties.

His Likud Party is expected to win 29 seats in Israel's 120-seat Knesset parliament, with Labour second on 20 seats. Kadima, the largest party at the last election, looks fated to collapse completely. Mr Netanyahu's only concern appears to be that his gentle cruise to victory could run into an electoral squall: the return of former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

"Netanyahu's electoral nightmare is a coalescence of centre-left forces under a leader seen as a potential prime minister," says Leslie Susser, political editor of the Jerusalem Report. "By calling an early election, he avoids having to pass an austerity budget that would play into the opposition's hands, pre-empts the return of Ehud Olmert as an experienced and weighty challenger, and sets the election agenda by focusing on looming hostilities with Iran and presenting himself as the only available leader capable of dealing with the challenge of war."

Mr Olmert, who was prime minister at the head of Kadima from 2006 to 2009, is yet to announce his decision but Likud supporters have already moved to block his return.

In July, Mr Olmert was found guilty on four counts of breach of trust while serving as minister of industry and trade. He is currently accused in another corruption trial. Partly because he argued that his political career was ended by the scandal, he was given a suspended sentence and a fine, avoiding a charge of "moral turpitude" that would bar him from holding public office.

This week, Tzipi Hotovely, a Likud MP, wrote to the head of Israel's electoral commission demanding a ban on Mr Olmert.

"In Olmert's verdict, the court refrained from delving into the issue of moral turpitude when he waived his right to return to politics. Therefore, no hearing was ever held in regard to the moral turpitude associated with his actions," Hotovely argued.

"The return of a criminal, convicted of government corruption, to public service, even if the move has fringe support, deals a critical blow to the status of the Knesset," she said.

Even if he overcomes the legal obstacles, Mr Olmert will face a tough battle to unseat Mr Netanyahu, his one-time Likud colleague. A poll published on Friday by the Jerusalem Post - owned by one of Mr Olmert's supporters - indicated that he might beat Likud, but only if the warring former heads of the Kadima Party united under him, together with Yair Lapid, a TV star and newspaper columnist who has formed his own political movement. That constellation seems unlikely.

After three years in office during which he guided his country successfully through the world economic crisis and, in stark contrast to Mr Olmert who launched two bruising wars against Lebanon and Gaza, Mr Netanyahu's term has been one of the most stable in Israel's history. With the current impasse in peace talks with the Palestinians and growing tensions with Iran and on Israel's borders, Mr Netanyahu appears to most Israelis as the obvious choice.

His popularity has waned slightly in recent months after public rifts with President Barack Obama and his defence minister, Ehud Barak. Those crises appear to have passed, leaving Mr Netanyahu unscathed.

He also responded successfully to a wave of economic protests in the summer of 2011, blunting criticism by his appointment of an economic reform commission. When movement leaders tried to re-ignite the protests this summer, they failed.