JERUSALEM (AFP-EJP)---Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Tuesday called an early general election, saying it should be held "as quickly as possible" in a bid to avoid damaging the Jewish state's economy.
""In the face of the turmoil around us, security and economic, it is my obligation as Prime Minister to put the national interest above all. Therefore I have decided that for the good of Israel we must go to an election now as fast as possible," he told a press conference, broadcast live 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," Netanyahu said.
In what appeared to be a double-barreled approach to the coming election campaign, Netanyahu said that Israel must "ensure Iran won't have an atomic bomb" and maintain "dynamic economic growth" that preserves Israeli jobs.
Elections for Israel's 19th parliament had been due to take place in October 2013 but the Israeli leader moved to bring forward the date after failing to garner the support of coalition partners for an austerity budget which must be passed by the end of this year.
Although he did not set a date for the election, Israeli press reports suggested it would be in late January or mid February. By law, elections must take place on a Tuesday.
Netanyahu has been trying to push through an austerity budget prepared by Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz that commentators say has virtually no chance of being adopted by the end of 2012.
"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.
"We are facing an election year and unfortunately in an election year it is difficult for parties to put the national interest over party interests," he said.
The Knesset, Israel’s 120-member parliament, is likely to be dissolved next week within days of starting its winter session on October 15 and fix the date of the elections.
Netanyahu's announcement ends weeks of speculation about whether he would bring forward the election in a bid to bolster his position and capitalise on his popularity.
Recent polls indicate Netanyahu, who heads the 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, Labour leader Shelly Yachimovich suggested the vote be held on January 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.
Labour, she said, was "ready" for an election.
In his address, Netanyahu burnished 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.
"There is only one way to preserve these achievements -- in the face of the regional upheavals and the global economic crisis, we have to continue with a responsible security and economic policy," he said, calling on the public to reelect him.
There was a brief flurry of election fever earlier this year after Netanyahu said he would go to the polls in September.
But as parliament was voting on whether to dissolve itself, he backtracked and made an 11th-hour deal to bring the opposition Kadima party into his ruling coalition, giving him a majority of 94 seats.
That political marriage collapsed just 70 days later, with Kadima head Shaul Mofaz pulling out citing differences over plans to change the law on universal conscription.
Netanyahu presides over a five-party coalition government that controls 66 seats in the 120-member parliament.
Recent opinion polls suggest Netanyahu's Likud party would capture 28 seats, putting it in prime position to lead a coalition of right-wing and Jewish religious parties similar to the current governing alliance.
Rivals include Shelly Yachimovich, a former journalist who now leads the left-leaning Labour party that polls predict could more than double the number of its parliament members to 19. Another new contender is Yair Lapid, a popular TV personality whose recently formed Yesh Atid party promotes secular policies.
Netanyahu's Defense Minister, Ehud Barak, might be at risk. His small Atzmaut party could struggle to win any seats, according to the surveys.
Under Israeli law, Netanyahu could reappoint Barak to the post even if he is not elected to parliament.
But friction emerged between the two men over the past several weeks after Netanyahu suggested the United States, which rebuffed his call to set a "red line" for Tehran, did not have a moral right to prevent Israel from attacking Iran.
Netanyahu has had a strained relationship with U.S. President Barack Obama and Democrats have accused him of favoring Republican presidential contender Mitt Romney, an allegation the Israeli Prime Minister denies.