JERUSALEM Israel's Parliament on Tuesday set a January 22 date for a national election and opinion polls predict an easy win for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in balloting expected to focus on his tough policies on Iran's nuclear program and economics.
Lawmakers approved the measure by a vote of 100 to nil after a more than eight-hour debate, dissolving parliament, or ending its term of office, effective immediately and months ahead of schedule.
Israeli elections had been expected in October 2013, but it is common for governments to break up before their terms expire over disagreements about budgets, policy on religion or the nation's conflicts with Arab and other neighbors.
Opinion polls have indicated an easy election victory for the right-wing Likud party's leader Netanyahu, who is likely to head a coalition that includes nationalist and religious parties.
In a combative speech to parliament ahead of three requisite votes held to disband the body, Netanyahu urged lawmakers to back the January 22 date approved by his cabinet after he said difficulties agreeing a 2013 budget with coalition partners had meant such a vote was necessary.
Kicking off his re-election campaign, Netanyahu focused in his speech on tough measures he had taken to improve security for Israelis, such as building a fence along the border with Egypt's Sinai, and deploying a missile shield against rockets fired from Gaza.
Alluding to past threats to attack Iran to stop it from building a nuclear bomb, something Tehran denies, Netanyahu said Israel now had new unspecified "capabilities to act against Iran and its satellites (allied militants in Gaza and Lebanon), capabilities we didn't have in the past".
He did not elaborate but said he had "put the danger of Iran's nuclear program at the center of the global agenda".
"Whoever makes light of the threat of Iran's nuclear program doesn't deserve to govern Israel for even a single day," he added, taking aim at rivals who accuse him of using the Iran issue as a scare tactic to remain popular.
NO "UNNECESSARY WARS"
Netanyahu also said he had managed to avoid going to war during his two terms in office - three years in the late 1990s and his current term since March 2009.
"We didn't wage any unnecessary wars, or any wars at all," he said, saying fewer Israelis had been killed in conflicts with the nation's Arab neighbors.
The comment was widely seen as a swipe at Ehud Olmert, a former prime minister who is seen as Netanyahu's potentially toughest rival if he decides to make a comeback after a recent acquittal on corruption charges.
Olmert and his centrist Kadima deputies presided over two wars during the two years they were in office, including a month-long campaign against Lebanon's Hezbollah in 2006 and a three-week offensive against Gaza Hamas militants in 2008-2009.
Both wars killed hundreds and drew wide international condemnation of Israel which was criticized for the deaths of Lebanese and Palestinian civilians.
Shaul Mofaz, the current head of the centrist Kadima party, accused Netanyahu of "blatantly interfering in the U.S. election", alluding to Netanyahu's open disputes with President Barack Obama on Iran and the Palestinians ahead of a November 6 U.S. presidential vote.
Turning to economics, Netanyahu touted what he called a "revolution" under his stewardship, citing highways that had been paved to link up Israel's center with peripheral towns and the creation of new jobs despite a global financial crisis.
Economics was one of the main reasons Netanyahu last week decided to move up Israel's national election by eight months from a scheduled October 2013.
He cited differences with coalition partners over austerity measures in next year's fiscal budget, as well as security challenges including the threat of a nuclear Iran.
(Editing by Michael Roddy)