TEL AVIV Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday said he supported holding an early general election in four months' time, a ballot polls say could strengthen his hand as Israel confronts Iran's nuclear ambitions.
The next national vote was not due until October 2013, but new legislation that might force ultra-Orthodox Jews to serve in the military and an upcoming budget debate have threatened to unravel a governing coalition of religious and nationalist parties once seen as one of the most stable in Israel's history.
"It is preferable to have a short election campaign of four months that will swiftly return stability to the political ranks," Netanyahu said in a speech to a packed convention of his rightist Likud party.
He said he wanted to avoid pressure from coalition partners who were beginning to destabilize the government. He did not specify a date, but a party official earlier said September 4 was the probable date for the ballot.
Likud has submitted a bill to dissolve Israel's parliament so that an early election may be held.
Parliament had been expected to start debating the measure on Monday, but that plan seemed uncertain after a senior coalition partner urged a procedural postponement.
"With the start of the government's fourth year we have seen many signs that the stability has begun to waver and political instability always brings extortion (and) populism which harm security, the economy and society. I will not allow a campaign of a year and a half that will harm the country," Netanyahu said.
A Netanyahu victory two months before the U.S. election would give him leverage over Barack Obama on the Iranian and Palestinian issues while the U.S. president is still engaged in his own campaign and wary of alienating pro-Israeli voters.
Netanyahu and Obama have had a thorny relationship and the right-wing Israeli leader has come under pressure from Washington not to take unilateral military action against Iranian nuclear facilities suspected of being part of a project to produce nuclear weapons.
Iran says its nuclear program is purely civilian. Israel is believed to be the Middle East's only nuclear-armed power.
Opinion polls show Likud will easily come out on top of the national ballot, giving Netanyahu a renewed mandate to tackle what he has described as the most important challenge facing his country - the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran.
On the subject of Iran, Netanyahu told his party he would not "ease the pressure until the threat is truly removed."
IMPACT ON IRAN POLICY
Israeli leaders have insisted the election campaign would have no impact on their decision-making on Iran. Netanyahu and his government would remain in office until a new administration is sworn in following the election.
Netanyahu has been urged by Washington and other world powers to allow beefed-up international sanctions on Iran to bite. He has voiced pessimism about the outcome of international nuclear talks with Iran due to resume in Baghdad on May 23.
While opinion polls have shown strong support for Netanyahu's leadership, they have also indicated a wide majority of Israelis either oppose an Israeli strike on Iran or would favor an attack only if it were carried out with U.S. agreement.
Netanyahu was cheered by hundreds at the Likud session held at a Tel Aviv convention hall but seemed to lose face in a procedural battle, when booing pro-settler activists managed to postpone a vote to elect him as head of a body to set party election rules.
The meeting broke up after a disorderly three hours without holding the vote that would have launched a process of choosing a slate of Likud candidates for the general election.
"Iran is not so interesting just now," said Reuven Malter, from the Elon Moreh settlement in the West Bank. He said he was worried that Netanyahu would succumb to Western pressure to break a deadlock with Palestinians and strike a peace deal at settlers' expense if he wins a second term.
"I think the prime minister is too moderate," said Yossi Bitan, another settler delegate, citing recent efforts to remove unauthorized outposts built by the settlers on land that Palestinians seek for a state.
(Additional reporting by Jeffrey Heller and Ori Lewis; editing by Anna Willard)