Israeli leaders confront political rift as election looms

JERUSALEM Sat Oct 6, 2012 4:21pm EDT

Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with Canada's Prime Minister Stephen Harper (not pictured) on the side lines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York, September 28, 2012. REUTERS/Andrew Burton

Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with Canada's Prime Minister Stephen Harper (not pictured) on the side lines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York, September 28, 2012.

Credit: Reuters/Andrew Burton

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JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu summoned his defense minister, Ehud Barak, on Saturday to discuss allegations he had undermined the premier during recent trips to the United States, raising further speculation of an early election.

The rift between Netanyahu and Barak, once close allies who have largely presented a united front when it comes to dealing with what they see as an Iranian drive to obtain a nuclear bomb, could grow into an issue that brings down the government.

Cabinet ministers from Netanyahu's right-wing Likud party have publicly accused Barak -- who heads a small, left-leaning party -- of undermining the prime minister with U.S. officials by espousing his own opinions.

In one report this week, Israel's Channel 2 television quoted Netanyahu as saying: "Do you know what Barak has done on diplomatic matters? He went to the United States to stir up the argument between us and (President Barack) Obama and come across as a moderate savior."

During the meeting, which was to take place late on Saturday, Netanyahu would demand clarifications from Barak on his actions and make clear that total coordination between them was a must, an official from the prime minister's office said.

"Netanyahu is expected to demand from Barak a commitment that such things will not happen again," said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Before the meeting, an official from Barak's office said the defense minister only took into consideration Israel's security and "will continue to act according to his sense and consideration at home and abroad".

In addition to the friction with Barak, Netanyahu faces challenges in drafting a state budget and could call a snap election in an attempt to build new alliances rather than battle with his current coalition partners.

By law a national election must be held no later than about year from now, but coalition members have said that Netanyahu could call for a vote in January or February. (Reporting by Ari Rabinovitch; Editing by Myra MacDonald)

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